Monday, October 31, 2011

Horrible Hallowe'en

This holiday always reminds me of the most memorable one I ever experienced, filled with a kind of horror that is still vivid in my mind....the Hallowe'en night when I was 7.
We had moved to Hackettstown, NJ, the previous January, when I was six and a half years old, into a second-floor apartment that overlooked where four streets met at three gas stations and the Warren House Hotel, across from where the Billy Yank Civil War statue is now, the intersection narrowing into Main Street. Our new home was smaller than the New Street house in Budd Lake had been, so my crib/youth bed was in Mother and Dad’s room until Jeff moved up to the chilly independence of his own room on the third floor, and I could move into what had been his small room off the dining-room. But this story really begins a few months before we moved, on one October day when Mrs. Quinn, my first grade teacher at Budd Lake School, told us that we could each draw what we wanted to dress up as on Hallowe’en that year.

Its advent was a surprise to me, being still a bit shaky on calendar holidays, but I was very excited about it. I could remember clearly two or three years before when I was really little, being carried around the neighborhood by Daddy, and the shout of laughter from the grownups when I had demonstrated my confusion about weekdays—I had thought if that day was Tuesday, then in the dark overnight was Wednesday, and when I woke up it would be Thursday. But I had been Sleeping Beauty, and they didn’t understand that…..

Happily I began to draw with a black crayon on the big sheet of paper Mrs. Quinn had given me. I would use almost all the sheet, and take it home so Mother could make it for me.

The dream, however, did not become the reality.

I showed my picture to Mother as soon as I got off the bus in Mr. Baccagalupe’s gravel parking lot that afternoon and ran across the street and up the porch steps and inside. There was a direct conflict between who I wanted to be—Tinkerbell—and the ongoing battle Mother waged with my many colds. Tink, as depicted by the Disney animators in the Peter Pan movie we had seen, was all too scantily clad for going around in a North Jersey evening in late October. In vain I pined for having my long hair put up and the grace of gossamer wings and the hope of flitting through the crisp air. For surely they would come with pixie dust….

But no. Mother’s idea was that I would wear a white blouse and a long green skirt, the two joined by a wide black strip of cloth laced with a long shoelace (that wouldn’t stay tied) called a bodice that really looked more like a cummerbund, the whole surmounted by a long red cape with a hood, and a little basket on my arm: Little Red Riding Hood.

I had never particularly liked that folktale, and I certainly didn’t relish the possibility of meeting any wolves. I felt I knew better than to stray off any paths, and anyway Daddy would be with me. Fortunately, no one thought of getting a wolf costume for Jeff, who would dress up as a tramp again and go with Carl Tillander.

But Mother had gone ahead and already made the costume for me. Knowing how she hated to sew, Dad kept talking about what a good mommy she was to go to all that trouble, and they talked altogether too much about how cute I would look, with my long red-gold curls peeping out around my rosy face under the hood, etc., etc.

The truth is, I was a cute little girl. I'd had my cheeks pinched by relatives and neighbors and total strangers for most of my life so far, and had become an expert at sizing up which grown-up lap would be soft and comfortable, and which would be bony and knobby. I had been passed around from one grown-up to another since I was a baby, and frankly, I was sick of it. Even now, I wince at the word cute as applied to anything besides babies and kittens. Tinkerbell looked better by the minute.

In the end, I did not go as either one that year….because I had a bad cold by then. Mother used to say that I had a bad cold every year, beginning in September that lasted to May, and after I had my tonsils out, I had a succession of colds between September and May. Jeff was supposedly going to share his candy with me, but, well, you know how those things go with big brothers. He grudgingly let me have one candy bar, and that was it. I felt cheated.

One year later, there we were in Hackettstown. Mother was getting ready to go to work at the dairy in Long Valley after supper, and Jeff was putting on the caballero outfit, the last year that he would wear it. This, by the way, was by far the most successful costume we ever owned. Daddy had gotten it when he was in Mexico for the State Department, after the War, so it had the virtue of being From a Faraway Place. It also had the important virtue, from Mother’s point of view, of Being Warm. This outfit consisted of a pair of flared, suspendered black wood pants, with curly white braid down the outside of each leg; a matching vest; a matching short jacket; a brightly-striped serape to wear over one shoulder, and a big black trimmed- with-white-braid sombrero. All you needed to add was a black half-mask. This was an indestructible, warm, nice-looking, comfortable outfit, later worn by me and then in turn by all of Shirley’s four kids and then her grandchildren. Someone is probably wearing it this year. As usual, Jeff begged for the little silver spurs Daddy had brought back with it, and as usual they were not forthcoming, for fear they’d be lost.

“Am I going out trick-or-treating?” I demanded.

“Yes,” said Mother. “I have an old pillowcase for you to put your candy in—those paper bags always disintegrate. I wonder why it always rains on Hallowe’en.”

“Can I go as Tinkerbell?” I asked, eternally hopeful.

“Now, Princess, remember the nice costume Mother made for you last year?” Daddy said jovially. “Think how cute you’ll look as Little Red Riding Hood.”

“I don’t like Little Red Riding Hood,” I stated.

“She put in an awful lot of work making it for you,” Daddy said.

I felt it was unfair to bring guilt into it, but the caballero was too big for me, and I was realistic enough to know from his tone that it was the darned cape or not going and no candy at all.

“The best thing about this costume, Dick,” said my mother on her way out the door, “is you can put her jacket and slacks on underneath, so she won’t get chilled. With any luck, she may not get a cold out of this. Make sure she’s home and in bed by eight.” Bedtimes at our house were always ironclad.

Jeff ran off to meet his buddies, cautioned by Dad not to forget to keep track of the time and be home by nine. I was duly inserted into the skirt and cummerbund over my cardigan and corduroy slacks and then he buttoned up my jacket and added the cape and the basket. As we descended the back steps, I was gloomily aware of how geography and weather conditions were forcing me to deviate from artistic norms; I doubted very much that the real Little Red Riding Hood had ever worn a stupid corduroy jacket under her cape. It offended my sense of accuracy, not that any grown-up cared.

But I cheered up a bit at the thought of all that lovely sugary loot to be collected. With Daddy nearby, I was perfectly secure, but the novelty of being outside in the darkness of wind-tossed branches beyond the high streetlamps was exciting-- just the right amount of safely scariness for a seven-year-old.

We walked out to the main sidewalk in front of the Warren House, and met one of Daddy’s fellow band-members, walking his dog. “Doesn’t she look cute!” was the predictable remark. That was bad enough, along with being chucked under the chin as if I was a toddler, but what he said next was worse. “Going to the parade?”

“Parade?” echoed my father.

“Daaad-eee, Mother said I have to be in bed by eight!” I wailed.

“Sure,” the hatefully helpful neighbor said. “Every year they have a Hallowe’en parade for the kiddies. Only one for miles around. They’ll be starting up at the Acme parking lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won a prize in her age-group. How old is she, four?”

“Six!” I fumed. I was always being thought younger than I was, being so small, a problem that dogged me into my twenties.

“Hey, thanks for telling me. We just moved here, you know, and didn’t know about it.” Dad petted the dog and they moved away.

Looking up, I could see my doom in the competitive gleam in his blue eyes. “A parade! Isn’t that great! Lucky we found out! We’d better hustle if we don’t want to be late,” he said happily.

“I want to go trick-or-treating,” I said forlornly.

“We will, honey, I promise. But think what a nice surprise it’ll be for your mother and Jeff when they find out. You might win a prize! That would make her happy, after all the work she put in, sewing that costume.”

I didn’t think I’d win any prizes, and I was certain that Jeff would smirk over having so much more candy than I did. If I was lucky, I thought, I might never again have to wear anything hand-sewn and weighted down with guilty ingratitude but probably not until I was an old lady, too old to even go out on Hallowe’en.

I knew better than to pout out my lip, but my sense of injustice grew as he firmly piloted me the length of Main Street, past a few houses that fronted the street with their porch lights on, universal sign that they wanted little girls to come get their goodies. Daddy always had a horror of being late for anything, and was determined to get me there before it started, so we walked past the business section, crossed the railroad tracks, and hurried past Tickner’s Feed & Grain to the Acme. As I pondered the number of apples that I would probably get in lieu of goodies, he found the appropriate official to sign me up, and carefully pinned a large piece of white cardboard with big black numbers on the back on that accursed cape: A-106. That meant that I was in the youngest group and the 106th kid to be registered in it. It was also our street number, which he chose to regard as good luck.

“It’s already forming up,” Daddy said. “You’re going to march just like I do! Come out here,” as he led me into the street. “Let me put your hood up so it frames your face. Too bad I don’t have a comb in my pocket—you look beautiful!”
For the first time he saw my expression, which was not happy. “Daddy, please, trick-or-treating,” I said, trying hard not to cry with frustration.

“We will, after the parade. I promise!”

“No rain check?” That was a concept I had recently been introduced to, when he had promised to take me to the Dairy Queen for a cherry-dipped ice cream cone—and then didn’t, for some stupid grownup reason I had not understood.

He smoothed my curls. “No rain check. Do this for me, all right?”

“All right.”

“That’s my good girl!” He straightened up and started for the sidewalk... going AWAY.

I made a frenzied grab for his leg. “Daddy!”

“Honey, let go. Let go!” He pried my limpet-like fingers from his pants-leg. “This parade is for children, not parents. I’ll be right over there on the sidewalk, I’ll walk along on the sidewalk, and I’ll be right there at the end of the parade, the way you and Mom and Jeff meet me when I parade. I’ll just be over here. Now smile and be a good girl!”

But he wasn't the one being stranded in the midst of mobs of completely unknown children of all sizes and shapes, in all kinds of costumes, ranging from the standard ghost and tramps and cowboys to cute little cartoon characters and animals to the fantastic space men and objects like a newspaper and lamp to macabre monsters and fearsome green-faced witches. I had never seen any of these children in my life. I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t see my father, who had vanished into the crowd. I was surrounded by noise and movement and glaring lights that rendered the world beyond the edge of the street a dark shifting void. With a ghastly smile plastered on my face—more a rictus of terror than anything else—I stumbled along an endless route that eventually turned off onto Church Street, then left onto Washington Street, winding its way to the elementary school playground.

In the center of it someone had erected a makeshift wooden platform from which to announce the winners. To my dazed eyes, it looked familiar, but I knew it had not been there the day before. Where had I seen it before?

Then I knew: it looked like the platform that Gabby Hayes had been led up onto, his hands bound, with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding up at the last minute to rescue him from being hanged dead from the gallows, on the last installment of Roy's Saturday TV show.

Mr. Hoagland stood on the platform at the microphone, which crackled and spat static for a minute. Later on he would become a dear family friend; at that time he was the Mayor. “Our first winner, for prettiest Storybook Character in the Little Ones division, which is for the ages of three to eight, is A-106. Would Little Red Riding Hood please come up here? Where is Little Red Riding Hood?”

That…that was me. I was going to be up on the gallows?

Some adult had me by the arm, and was pulling me along, boosting me up the steps onto the platform, into the glaring floodlights around it. I was too frozen with terror to cry or run. I even managed to hold onto the envelope containing a U.S. Savings Bond, that most meaningless of prizes for a little girl. Numbly, mechanically, I answered the usual banal questions that adults ask a child they don’t know: my name, my age, what grade I was in, my teacher’s name. But the kindness in Mayor Hoagland’s eyes began to revive me. Then I heard the college clock play the Westminster chimes before it struck the hour—and Cinderella never strained to hear its strokes), desperate to get away, as I did (, NO...eight)—so that when he asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I answered loudly and clearly,

“I want to go trick-or-treating!”

Everyone laughed and clapped. I was released, to almost fall down the steps. But Daddy was there, smiling hugely, lifting me in a big hug, and carrying me out of the maelstrom of the crowd of parents and kids on the playground. Now we would go trick-or-treating, he said, and I had been such a good girl that we’d forget about bedtime for once; I could stay up later. He was as eager as I was to get to as many houses as we could, more than ready to boast about my winning.

That year, I got almost twice as much candy as my brother did!

Happy Hallowe'en, everyone!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Archimedes & Lambchop

Archimedes the Owl
One day, during the summer when I was 16 and in a counselor-in-training program at a Girl Scout camp in northwestern New Jersey, I came back to the top of a bank barn where we lived over the Crafts area for something, and heard an odd sound. Looking around, in a corner I found a little reddish-brown screech owl, with an injured wing and damaged claw. I ran to the kitchen in the Main House to beg for some raw hamburger from Mrs. Rabel, the cook, and hurried back. Slowly approaching, I dropped a towel over him, based on my reading about hooded falcons in medieval times, picked him up, and took him to the camp nurse. She arranged for me to take him to a veterinarian. (This was in the Sixties, before laws about wildlife rehab got more stringent regarding birds of prey). The vet set the dislocated wing, and tended the damaged right talon, showing me what to do as he got better. We also measured him; he was only slightly taller than my favorite dolls when I was younger, so he was about 8 1/2 inches tall; his wingspan we estimated was about 21 inches, and he weighed about 6 oz. So I had an owl....and because I was reading T.H. White's The Once & Future King books that summer, I named him my camp nickname was, naturally, Owl.

Consulting the Audubon bird guide at the Nature Lodge, I learned that the Latin name was Megascops asio, and  that he would normally be nocturnal, hunting mostly the first four hours of darkness--in other words, from about 9 pm-1 am at that time of year. At first, I carried him in my Panama hat; he seemed to like the swinging motion as it hung from the throat-latch I'd made. He was NOT a pet; I never caged him. Later he often perched on top of the hat on my head, or on my shoulder (I padded my shirts with a folded dish-towel stuffed with moss, so his talons didn't prick my skin through the cloth; the towel was sewn onto a sort of sash that tied on my opposite hip). Often he'd come spend time with me during the day as well as in the evening.

About a month later, the State Ag farm gave us a sheep. I suppose they thought it'd be nice for the city kids from New Brunswick to be around it. This was unexpected--I made a cartoon of it in a basket, abandoned on our doorstep like a cartoon baby--so they hastily set up a pen made of that slatted red winter fencing that farmers use, and made a stall under the Big Barn, whose main floor contained a gathering space/camp store. And guess who wound up having to take care of Lambchop? Yup. Me.

Lambchop, aka Fluffy
I grew to hate that sheep! The only farm creature stupider than a sheep is a turkey; when she was 12, Mother was in charge of a flock of them, and she told me many times that they are so dumb that not only will they die if they get wet, but some of them are so afraid of water, they will fall over dead if they even see a dark cloud on the horizon....but I digress.

Lambchop must have had a heat rash under his fleece, or was addled by loneliness--after all, sheep are flock animals, and he was alone--so he almost constantly rubbed against the fence. The paint came off onto his fleece, so he turned pink.

Jealousy sank its green claws into Archimedes' feathery consciousness. I know this because he would fly up into the branches of a big tree whenever I went into the pen, hooting and flaring his wings after he landed, while I cleaned the stall and gave Lambchop some feed and more water....and Archimedes got into the habit of amusing himself by dropping pinecones, twigs, or other items down on Lambchop's head, driving the sheep back and forth across the pen until the sheep took refuge inside his stall.

One day at supper, June, the camp director, announced that someone from the National Girl Scout HQ in New York City would be coming in several days to inspect and recertify the camp. For most of those days, we were all very busy sprucing up the camp; I spent a great deal of time either sickling odd corners of tall grass, or doing inventory in the "rat cages", netted-wire areas where equipment was kept in storage between out-of-camp field trips (we would hike and camp on the Appalachian Trail, or go to public campgrounds near Dingman's Ferry, PA for specialized camping/skills tests). I remember that Doris, June's sister, who was in charge of the kitchen and that equipment, was so pleased that they couldn't find any recent evidence of rats--Archimedes had cleaned them all out. He also loved eating spiders, other large insects, bats, and the occasional fish. He was an equal-opportunity eater, but Lambchop's thick fleece and size defeated him.

The day before the inspectors were to arrive, June looked around all morning. At lunch she commended us for the fine job we'd done....except for one area: the sheep pen. Oh, it didn't need to be mowed or sickled--Lambchop himself took care of that as he grazed. No. Lambchop was the problem. Even though it was a GIRL Scout camp, we couldn't have a pink sheep. He would have to be bathed.

At the time, the camp did not have a Shower House. June and her mother and sister had a claw-footed tub in the  Main House. We CITs had a very small, ancient, rusting, war-surplus shower that was rumored to have been used by Washington's troops near Morristown. The individual camp units had communal washstands with many spigots and a few basins, and there was the lake where we all swam. Most campers were only there for a couple of weeks, and after all, we were roughing it. So June decreed that the CITs would do the washing that afternoon.

We were provided with:
        a garden hose
        a leaky bucket
        a cake of Ivory soap
        a dog blanket
        a roll of paper towels
        a rope
        two scrubbrushes
        some extra feed in another bucket
        a car chamois to act as a washcloth and
        a pair of manicure scissors to trim the wool Doris insisted was growing into his eyes.

I still maintain that if I'd been left alone to entice Lambchop with the food, I could have then tethered him without any problems. I knew, and said, that he was paranoid already. But no one else had ever been around when he was dive-bombed by my owl, so no one believed me. The rest of the CITs wanted to get this over with so we could do something more fun than clean up a smelly pink sheep, so they all rushed into the pen with me, and he panicked. Two of them blocked the door to his pen, so he couldn't go inside.

That sheep turned into a broken-field runner, Olympic sprinter, agile and cunning beyond belief. He butted. He pivoted on one hoof. Aimee swore later that he rolled himself into a ball at one point and knocked over several of us like nine pins. Audrey, Sandy and Pat all said later that they saw him retract patches of his wool so they couldn't grab it. I know for a fact that he changed breeds and from tiny nubbins hardly noticeable in his wool, sprouted big curled horns any mountain sheep would have claimed with pride, because I felt them more than once on a tender part of my anatomy.

After an hour, the 12 of us were panting, sweating, wet from the garden hose and bucket, bruised, and dishevelled. Lambchop was fresh as a daisy, not even partly breathless, dry as a bone, smirking, baaing his disdain. And pink.

The rest of the camp population was lined up outside the pen....rooting for Lambchop. June was frowning. We went into a strategy huddle.

Sheep 1, CITs 0.

Pat, whom I disliked almost as much as I did Audrey, said, "This is all your fault, Owl. Why'd you let him get pink?"

"Don't you blame this on me, Pat!" I snarled. "I'm the one who's had to do all the work with that walking dinner! I didn't see any of you mucking out his stall! The least you can do is help me now!"

"I think we should go on strike," said Sue. "What'll they do to us? Send us home? For once there isn't even any KP to do. Why should we have to cleam up after a sheep?"

I sighed. "Okay, time to bring in the reserves." Moving away from them, I held up my hand and called, "ARC-ih-MEE-DEES! Agamsa!"--and held my breath. I'd dreamed about this, about Archimedes flying to me like a hawk to the lure, but we'd never actually DONE it in private, let alone in front of everybody.

What a champ! What a pal!

From where he'd been avidly watching high in the tree outside the pen, he launched himself into the air, flying in a long, smooth, almost leisurely descent for Lambchop, at the last minute dropping a pinecone on his wooly head. After that, by means of his shadow, he herded the sheep into our arms.

Sheep's wool will absorb an inordinate amount of water, did you know that? Gallons of water from the hose and the bucket. And it puffs up, even after you rinse out the suds. We used the whole bar of Ivory. Did he get snowy white, like in cartoons? No. He was kind of an off-white, with a yellowy undertone, we learned. And wet living wool has a much more powerful odor than a damp coat or sweater that gets into your clothes and hair and lasts for quite a while.And if you are washing a sheep, you really should tether it instead of tying all four feet together so it lies on its side and trim its facial wool BEFORE washing it, because when you let it up, you have to get out all the twigs and leaves it's picked up on its side wool from lying (and wiggling) on the ground. You will also have fewer bruises. Sheep do not like their feet being tied together and will struggle. It's one of the lessons we learned. They may have a reputation for being peaceful and calm, but that is propaganda and a lie!

At last June took pity on Lambchop (and us) and declared he was as clean as he was going to get. We were done.

Untied, he bolted back towards his stall, only to find we wouldn't let him inside to burrow into the straw. Nobody wanted to have to pick it out of him. Thwarted and maybe even a bit tired himself, he allowed us to tether him in the sun in such a way that he couldn't lie down on the wet grass/churned-up mud, at a safe distance from the fence.

"Do you think he might get a chill?" wondered Jill. She was a sweet girl, but the rest of us snarled at her.

"Wonder if we could have roast lamb the last night of camp?" muttered Toni.

"I doubt it," replied Francie. "He's too tough!"

The next day the three National folks came. They inspected the entire camp. One of them spent about an hour in June's office doing paperwork. After she emerged, she and June walked over past the Big Barn, where I was gingerly feeling Lambchop's wool to see if it was dry yet. It was still damp. They paused while June told her that the sheep had been donated to us.

"How nice," said the woman. "Do you like petting the sheep, dear?"

"Owl--Jakie's very fond of Lambchop, aren't you?" asked June, who had forbidden me to allow Archimedes to terrorize Lambchop while they were there, and who was clearly wondering where he was.

I didn't know the answer to that, so I merely said (a Girl Scout is truthful), "I will never forget him!"

"Did you call her Owl?" asked the woman.

"No! She's nicknamed Jakie because her last name is Jacob."

"How odd!"

"Why? It's in the Bible," I said, wondering how much more inane this conversation was going to get.

Looking back on it, I suspect that this lady was as uncomfortable as we were, and may have been new at inspecting. Or maybe she spent most of her time doing it and actually had very little experience with people. She said, "Oh, I didn't mean that. Of course it is! No, I meant how odd that I thought you said Owl. It must have been because of the stuffed one on the mantlepiece in your office, Miss Rabel. My, it looked very lifelike, especially the eyes! I've never seen such a fine example of taxidermy."

June and I traded appalled glances, and she blurted, "You didn't try to touch it, did you?"

Both of us had vivid memories of how Archimedes had intimidated a former member of the CITs who had admitted to several unsuspected thefts, simply by his standing right behind her pillow leaning over and looking down at her when she woke one morning, his curved blue-grey beak inches from her nose....

"Oh, no, I didn't want to risk damage the feathers," she said. We both breathed again, and I stopped trying to count her fingers.

Lambchop scowled behind his wool and tossed his head irritably.

"Well, let's continue with the tour," said June brightly, and as they moved away, she looked back, making urgent gestures I easily interpreted as Get that bird the heck out of my office NOW!

Which I did.

Sometimes I will dream of the softness of feathers, and a low burring sound next to me as a beak delicately traces the curve of my earlobe, and the grace of silent flight under the moon, flickering over the trees and fields, instinctively adjusting minutely for changes in air currents, keen eyes and ear-tufts alert for the almost invisible movements, the almost inaudible sounds, of small creatures scurrying along the ground, and then the swiftness of descent, flaring wings, reaching, reaching, for the catch....and I *am* Archimedes, free in the sky, strong and powerful and proud.

But I never dream about sheep, especially pink ones.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

National Ice Cream Day!

Thomas Jefferson is renowned for many things: the Declaration of Independence, minister to France during part of the Revolution, President, founder of the University of Virginia, inventor, scholar whose library formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress, gardener, architect….and, my father would add, introduced ice cream to America—although Wikipedia says that Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Dolly Madison all made and served ice cream to their guests.

In payment of a loan made to the King of England by Admiral Penn, his son William Penn was given the charter for Pennsylvania in 1682. A member of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers, and having spent time in prison for his beliefs, William was well aware that Quakers were undergoing persecution in Britain, so he saw this land between New York and Virginia as a refuge for Quakers. Like other non-Anglicans, they were banned from practicing the professions, could not attend universities, and many became merchants and entrepreneurs. What I did not know until I read that article was that ice cream was actually introduced first by Quaker colonists, who brought their recipes with them.  Cities such as New York, and probably Philadelphia, had confectioners selling ice cream 100 years later, before the Revolution. Jefferson helped popularize it among his friends.

Now why should I want to write a blog post about ice cream?

Because my mother, Dorothy Dangler Jacob, felt bored and restless as a 1950s homemaker, that’s why. One evening at supper when I was five, my mother said that after we finished, she’d be going out; she was starting a part-time job at Welsh Farms Dairy in Long Valley, NJ. My brother scowled; none of his friends’ mothers worked outside the home, but I was curious. “What will you do?” I asked.

“Milking the cows,” said Daddy, his eyes twinkling. “She’ll be a milk-maid.”

My acquaintance with cows being limited in those days to nursery rhymes like the cow jumping over the moon, that seemed pretty cool to me. Mother smiled. “No, I’m going to be answering the phone and helping with orders for the milkmen,” she said. “My job is called a Night Owl.”
Then Daddy explained that it meant she’d be driving over to Long Valley and back, that she’d leave after supper and get home very, very late—so if Mother decided to take a nap during the day, we’d have to be very quiet so she could sleep. Unfortunately, she was not capable of napping, so she spent years being sleep-deprived.

“And,” she added, “I’ll get part of my wages in dairy products—milk, cream, and ice cream.”
WOW! A perpetual, unlimited supply of ice cream….
“I don’t like ice cream!” grumbled my brother. One more piece of evidence of his being a changeling, I thought.
As she would for more than 40 years, Mother kissed us, picked up a large brown wicker basket and her purse, and went out to the car. She had to clock in by seven pm. Daddy began clearing the table.
Mother didn’t really have a burning desire to work at night, or to spend hours talking on the phone. She did want the extra money it would bring in, to use for things like piano and dance lessons for me, and most of all, for us to take vacation trips in the summer, fulfilling her yearning to travel. I can understand that; I inherited my itchy feet from her. A part-time job at night was a good fit, because we could still have supper together, only had one car and Daddy could be home with us in the evenings. I enjoyed his putting me to bed, and later he would help me with my homework; I think it made the two of us closer.
At the time, Welsh Farms was one of many small local dairies. The buildings were an assortment of dark green shingled structures that had been added to over the years, and I must have been about 10 or 11 when they bought a split-level house to function as the office building.

Long Valley bridge from Raritan River
Mother would drive over Schooley’s Mountain, down into Long Valley, turning left before the old stone bridge, bump over the railroad tracks, pass a ruined church on the left and the local volunteer fire department on the right, stop at the loading dock to pick up the sheets and tickets she would work on, and then drive further to the office. At the front desk in the deserted reception area, she’d answer phones as the route managers and dealers called in their orders. They were supposed to do this before midnight, but often she would have to call them. On big forms, the sheets, she would carefully note down what items needed to be loaded onto the big trucks that would be driven by the route managers from the loading dock to various distribution points, where the drivers (milkmen) would meet them to get their individual tickets listing what went into each man’s load: half-pints, pints, quarts, half-gallons, gallons, and larger amounts of milk, half-and-half, heavy cream, butter, ice cream, sherbet, ice cream mix (for some stores and restaurants), along with the products. Later they expanded into orange juice, cottage cheese, and novelty items such as pitchers, mugs and tumblers. Their clientele included individual families, stores, restaurants, and schools.
Her job required her to be precise and accurate in legibly listing all the products, making sure that the amounts and prices were accurate between the sheets and tickets, as well as ensuring that the right amounts of the right things got onto the right trucks—and to her annoyance, often some drivers would call her back and change the orders. Since each form was a layered sandwich of papers and three or four carbons, this often meant she had to completely redo everything. This was why she sometimes didn’t leave work until after 2 am, and if it was bad weather, she would have to inch her way up over the mountain, sometimes getting home as late as after 4. She never failed to make the trip home, even when it meant going to the upper side of the hairpin curve (on the wrong side of the road) just above Long Valley by the big

Welcome to Long Valley, NJ,
Home of Welsh Farms Dairy

I think it was sometime in the early 70s that she was taken on fulltime and switched to daytimes. She enjoyed not being the only one there, although she told me that in many ways, working nights had given her a pipeline into the gossip mill; the other woman who worked in that job for years was the biggest gossip in the township and beyond, related to half the inhabitants and knew all the rest. “Men gossip more than women do!” she told me, “Most of them don’t listen much; they think I’m her and just rattle on about their conquests!”  She gave up trying to convince some of them that she wasn’t Mildred, and just listened, never passing on anything she was told. After all, we lived in Hackettstown and didn’t even know many of those in Long Valley, Middle Valley, Califon, Fairmont, and Oldwick, and she really wasn’t interested.
I was more interested in the ice cream portion of her wages. We always got whatever the Flavor of the Month was, and sometimes she would indulge in an extra small round canister of a second flavor—but not very often. Usually that would be in the fall, when Dad’s and my favorite was made in limited quantities: Dutch Apple, subtly flavored with cinnamon and with big chunks of apple in it. Mmmmmmm!
Milk Bottle--note space
at top for cream to rise.
I was in Kindergarten at Budd Lake Elementary School when Mother arranged for my class to go on a field trip to the dairy. It was exciting to see the plant, and I remember the clinking sound as the glass bottles moved around on conveyers after being filled, to being capped and then put in big refrigerators.
When I had to get my tonsils out when I was six, Mother promised me we’d have plenty of vanilla fudge for my sore throat, and we did.
We were possibly the only family in Hackettstown that didn’t have an aluminum Welsh Farms Dairy milk box on our back stoop for the local dealer to put in the milk and get a note from the housewife as to what the family would need the next day or week. In the 60s, they dairy changed over to cartons, and I think it was in that decade or the next that the ice cream plant was moved to Caldwell. Gradually people got their milk at the grocery or convenience stores, instead of having it delivered.
By the time I was in college, the Port Murray dairy, the last other local one I knew about, was gone, and Welsh Farms was well on its way to becoming the largest dairy in northern New Jersey. It was after my freshman year that I learned I’d have to sit out a semester for lack of money to go back. I came home determined to get a job, worked for just under a week at the munitions factory (see my post on Memorial Day for that story), and when Daddy made me quit, Mother came to my rescue. Welsh Farms was opening what they hoped would be the first restaurant, the Welsh Farms Country Shops, at Panther Valley Mall outside town the next week. Once Mr. Thall, the manager, interviewed me, I was hired as a waitress.
I went in the next Thursday for training. Of the fifteen or so, all of us were high school or college girls without any experience, except for Rita, a woman in her 40s, and Gerri, also in her 40s. We all listened intently as we were told how to use the coffeemaker, saw where things were kept, and learned how to make malts, milkshakes, sundaes, spade ice cream and sherbet for hand-packaging, scoop for dishes and cones, and take and serve orders. Besides the ice cream, they served appetizers, soup, sandwiches, salads, and entrees. The most expensive item was a steak. Minimum wage was $1.45 an hour, and we could get a free meal on our shift up to that amount.
The next day, equipped with a white dress, white nurses’ shoes, a hair net, a stupid little gold sateen cap and a matching apron that contained 2 big pockets for my order pad and pen, I reported for work. It was our Grand Opening, and for that day, they had invited all the local merchants for a free lunch….And they all came, from miles around.
The Welsh Supreme was bigger!
To my relief, instead of being assigned to the dining-room or one of the three bays surrounded by counter stools and 4-person booths, my station was the last bay, with eight stools and 3 big booths that seated 6 people at a time. That relief was short-lived; the middle booth was occupied by the dairy’s president and vice-presidents, most of whom I knew, all of them knowing Mother for years—and five of them decided that it’d be fun to tease me. So, after I served them meal platters with all the different substitutions they wanted, led by George Wack, they ordered the single largest and most difficult-to-make dessert: the Welsh Supreme. This concoction consisted of two large bananas as the foundation for eight scoops of ice cream (and they insisted on eight different flavors), with three different syrups, topped by mounds of whipped cream, five maraschino cherries, and chopped nuts.
It was some time before I returned with the dish—and six spoons. “What took you so long?” asked Mr. Wack.
“I hurt my wrist on the chocolate,” I said; they could see that it was somewhat red and swollen. “It was much harder to scoop than the other flavors.”
Mr. Wack jumped up right away to go check, and told me later that the freezer compartments containing the big 15-gallon canisters of ice cream had all been set at the same temperatures. The chocolate, because it had the highest percentage of fat, needed to be slightly higher; the sherbets, with the most sugar, needed to be at lower temps.
I enjoyed being a waitress. Most of the time, I was on the first station, which had 12 counter stools, the take-out counter, all the hand-packed orders, and the cash register. Because I was usually there, I thought it was fair that we had tip cans, because most of the larger tips were left in the dining-room—and counter customers who just stopped in for coffee, a sandwich , or a dish of ice cream, usually left tips of a quarter or even just a dime. Another of my duties was training newer girls, but I was completely defeated by an older woman named Muriel. She was very anxious to please, but incredibly nervous and forgetful. After three weeks, I still had to remind her what went into a setup—a place-mat (with the menu printed on it), napkin, knife, fork and spoon, and a glass of iced water. One day I went into the walk-in freezer off the kitchen, where most of the refrigerated supplies were kept. I didn’t stop there, however, because I needed to replace a 15-gallon container of Chocolate Chip Mint, and went through the heavy door into the deep freeze. Suddenly the door slammed behind me. Both it and the outer one were locked, with no interior latches!
Out front, some time later, Mr. Thall emerged from his office and noticed that customers were stacking up by the register. He rang up their checks, and turned to Muriel, who was carefully filling the condiment holders with mustard, pickles and ketchup. “Where’s Barra?” he asked.
 “Oh, she’s here somewhere,” she said vaguely.
He had another girl check the ladies’ room, asked Jack the cook. Bobby Stewart, the busboy, said, “I saw her go into the walk-in just before Muriel did. Muriel came out, and then Jack sent me back to the dishwasher.”
By the time Mr. Thall jerked open the freezer door, I was turning blue and doing calisthenics as fast as I could. I was out for almost a week with bronchitis, and never saw Muriel again. When I got back to work, they had installed latches and a new rule: no one was to go into that room unless they were wearing Mr. Thall’s big parka. On me, it almost came down to the floor!
Two funny things come to mind from that period: every week or so, a big burly guy in a flannel shirt and jeans would come in with his tiny, frail, white-haired mother, who looked almost as transparent as a withered leaf. They would order a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and a Welsh Supreme banana split…and it was the fragile little old lady who’d devour the banana split, while her son usually ate only a few spoonfuls of his much smaller portion.
Then there was the time I was called in on a holiday weekend when we were unexpectedly short-staffed, and set to managing the ten tables in the dining-room by myself. A family came in with two boys for dinner. The older one was a brat; nothing satisfied him. Finally he decided on a big chocolate fudge sundae for dessert; I made it, brought it to him, and he insisted he had asked me for strawberry instead of chocolate ice cream. I went back to make another one, but didn’t notice that Bobby had dripped some water on the floor before he had a chance to mop it up.  A rapidly-moving waitress stepping on wet tile floor might as well be wearing roller skates. I landed on my rump, keeping hold of the sundae dish—but the whipped cream and cherry flew up in the air and landed on my head like a clown’s hat before sliding down over my glasses….so once again, I made another and after cleaning myself up, delivered it to the customer. My tip was five bucks.
I worked there until mid-January, and again the next two summers. My family ate there for years, especially after they moved up to Panther Valley, even after it was sold and the name changed to first, the Eatery, and then BLDs (for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner) Grille & Restaurant. The food was always good no matter how the d├ęcor changed. The ice cream was superb.
After I finished college and graduate school, and got married, Mother was still working at the dairy. Every nice day at lunchtime, she’d walk 20 minutes up a country road, sit on a wall and read for another 20 minutes while she ate, then walked briskly back. She kept postponing retirement, because she was having so much fun with the computers, and enjoyed training younger women—who would then be sent to another department. Finally, when she did retire in 1995, she surprised everyone by admitting that she was 85. They’d all thought she was much younger. She had worked there for 44 years.

At the Country Shops, I remember a woman customer who’d come in every week, ask for a strawberry malt, and then complain that we could never make it to her satisfaction. Once Rita chatted with her, and elicited the information that when she was a little girl, the woman’s father had had an ice cream parlor where he used to make her strawberry malts. “Well, no wonder we can’t get it right for you,” Rita said. “You’re tasting it with your memories of that time with your daddy. What can live up to that?”
Alas, Welsh Farms is no longer. I will never have Dutch Apple in the fall again, or vanilla fudge, or peppermint stick, or raspberry sherbet, or any of their other flavors at any other times. But I do have a round platter with the logo on it of the little boy in the green checked shirt and red striped pants, leading a red-and-white calf, given to Mother on one of her anniversaries, somewhere there is a little notebook of handmade cartoons I made, and I can still taste the flavors with my memories.

Bananas or not, may whatever ice cream you love be supreme for you!

  1. Dad's joke that first night turned into her CB handle, "Milk Maid" during the 70s. Daddy was "Red Hawk," and my sister was "Chickadee."
  2. Pictures  of Welsh Farms Dairy items are from the collection of the Washington Township Historical Society in Long Valley. Their website has a nice slideshow of part of their collection.
  3. Picture of Long Valley bridge courtesy of Jason Koesterblatt, Long Valley Patch.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Beginning: Gramma, Tasha Tudor, & Me

The summer when I was 3 years old was momentous for several reasons. We were living in a little yellow bungalow on Orchard Street in Budd Lake, a tiny village in northwestern New Jersey whose population quadrupled every summer between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Orchard Street was a long block away from the highway that skirted the largest natural lake in the state, and in those days, cottages and boarding-houses like the Quicks’ big house next to ours would be filled up by city folks from New York, Trenton and Newark (always pronounced “Noork”; New-ark is a city in Delaware).

But that long block from the lake took you to another realm entirely, of mostly small one-family houses on either side of a narrow macadamed street lined with gnarled old apple trees. Once the daddies left for work by 8 am on weekdays, that street was empty enough for the kids to wander across and up and down it at will, even one as little as I was, until the dads came home around 5 pm. Oh, there’d be the occasional repairman, Fuller Brush man, insurance salesman, cleaners delivery truck, and on Saturdays, Dugan’s bakery van, but everybody knew their schedules, even me.

In late May, when the apple trees were still in bloom, my maternal grandmother, Abigail Jones Dangler, arrived for her annual two-month visit. Gramma was my best beloved, the kind of grandmother who wore flowered housedresses under bibbed aprons in soft pastels, those clunky-heeled black lace-up old ladies’ shoes you never see anymore, topped by a cloud of wavy white hair. She had exquisite skin, deep-set multicolored eyes behind her thick glasses, a clear flexible voice and told the best stories in the entire galaxy. She was also blind.

We hadn’t lived there very long, and as soon as she realized that I could talk plainly, she decided that I was going to be her “eyes” to help her learn her way around. She never had a Seeing-Eye dog. In those days, guide dogs were always German Shepherds, and the family felt that she was too old and frail to manage one, there weren’t many of them—and I somehow suspect that some of my aunts and uncles weren’t prepared to deal with either a large dog or the larger mobility a guide dog would give her. After all, like my mother, Gramma had more than six times the normal amount of energy; her blindness curtailed it to bearable limits for her less energetic offspring.

Her training meant that I had to increase my vocabulary, especially adjectives, comparatives and contrastive words, like "bigger/smaller," "wider/narrower," know my colors and numbers and directions, as in “Go left three steps so you can pick up the green bowl.” I had to learn to observe details in order to describe something clearly enough for her to accurately visualize it in her mind’s eye. One of her fears was always of stumbling over something and falling, which is why I learned at an early age to pick up my toys when I was finished playing on the floor and to push in chairs.

My reward was in wonderful stories and music!

Welsh dresser; ours had 2 drawers apiece under
the top shelf & below the top, & 2 doors.
One morning, as she was putting away breakfast dishes in the bottom of the sideboard (really more of a Welsh dresser) in the dining-room (the kitchen was too narrow to eat in, and dishes weren’t kept in the summer kitchen at the back), I asked her to tell me a story.

“I hae tae earn ma keep,” she said firmly. If I was proud of helping her, she was proud of still being able to do some light tasks as her contribution to the household.

She is the only person I’ve ever known whose eyes really did change color with her mood. Usually, they were a faded brown. When she was angry, they became green. Sorrow  made them look like dark brown velvet. Joy lightened them to almost gold. And in her fey moods—and she could be very uncanny—they would be all those colors mingled together, thinly rimmed about with grey-blue.

When she turned her head in my direction that morning, I saw that her eyes were green with irritation.

Gramma always felt that the best start to her day was for someone to read her a Bible chapter…and once again, to her frustration, no one had had the time. She never had access to Braille or Talking Books, either, and while she had huge chunks of the Bible memorized, it wasn’t the same.

But then I saw her eyes begin to gleam; if we’d been in a cartoon, I would’ve seen a light bulb go on over her head. She sat back on her heels, and asked, “Hoo wad you like tae hae stories whenever you wanted, and no’ be dependent on ithers tae tellt them tae you at their convenience? Hoo wad you like tae learn tae read?”

Oh, BOY!

I was very curious about this mysterious grown-up activity my family enjoyed so much. It was unusual in the 50s for a preschooler to learn reading, although my family didn’t know that. Jeff had learned at four. Mother often said that learning to read for her was like learning to breathe.

Tasha Tudor & Corgi in her garden
Gramma consulted with her, and Mother took her shopping. They came home with an alphabet book, A Is for Annabelle, by Tasha Tudor[1], who also charmingly illustrated it in pen-and-ink and watercolors, with lovely borders. They also brought home an 8” Betsy McCall[2] doll; Gramma chose it because its knees bent, reminding her of the little wooden doll she had played with 70 yrs before, in the 1880s. I would immediately name her Abigail in Gramma's honor--athough later, whenever I dressed her in modern clothes, she went by various names as she portrayed different characters in whatever story I was playng. I was never a character in the stories, just providing voices, costume changes and movement.

This pink-covered book was just the right size for a little girl to hold!

A is for Annabelle, Grandmother’s doll, it began, with the first half of each rhyme on the left-hand page, and a bordered illustration of each thing on the right. Gramma, who learned the whole thing in no time flat, would recite it, and have me “write” each letter, upper and lower case, with my forefinger on her palm, to be sure I was on the right page.

Just to reinforce this, out of a big carton decorated inside to look like Annabelle’s bedroom, was the doll; that box (B is her box on the chest in the hall) and a doll’s suitcase containing every single item named in the rhymes, and at first I was only allowed to handle them during our lesson times. The rest of the time they stayed on top of Mother’s carved black hope chest in the playroom, which was Gramma's room when she visited. (We didn’t have a hall).

Annabelle was a 19th Century French fashion doll that with her wardrobe had been passed down in Miss Tudor’s family. In the time she was made, such dolls were used by fashion houses to advertise new designs for adults; they would be sent overseas to merchants who would display them for their customers to order full-sized replicas made to wear themselves. Judging by the illustrations of

            D are the dresses we want her to wear,

she dates from the mid-19th Century. My doll’s dresses were just like them, down to the full skirts over flounced petticoats, pantalettes, and with inset lace undersleeves. Later, when I was 9, Mother would give me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, showing the same kind of dresses.
 In Annabelle’s book and the doll’s suitcase, I remember that

            M is her muff, so warm and so cozy

was a scrap of soft brown fur sewn into a muff on a blue ribbon, and that

            N is her nosegay, a bright, fragrant posy

was the hardest line for me to say without getting my tongue twisted. You try saying that fast three times, and see how you do! It was a tiny cluster of felt-petaled flowers, tied with a narrow strip of lacy ribbon.

            P is her parasol, all trimmed with lace

\was one of those little umbrellas used in fancy tropical drinks. Although it didn’t have any lace, you could open and shut it.

I loved

Similar to Abigail's but with no footposts
& dowels between the headposts
--& she had nicer bedding!
             Q is the quilt at the foot of her bed 

because Daddy made the bed from a cigar box with six round wooden clothespin tops for the feet and bedposts, with thin dowels between them creating the headboard. Mother covered the mattress (a block of foam) with the narrowest ticking I’ve ever seen, and sheets hemmed with impossibly tiny stitches, covered by a wee crazy quilt she and Granny pieced, a tiny bolster pillow with a matching frill, and a bed-skirt with an embroidered lamb on it, reminiscent of the blue lamb quilt on my own bed.

            For T is her tippet, the latest from France,

Mother knitted a white mohair shoulder wrap. When I was in college and she sent me my first formal gown, she included a tippet just like it—like wearing a white cloud!—that I still have.

            U’s her umbrella was a tiny plastic one, from an insurance company ad campaign.

            W’s her watch to tell her the time was a clock charm about the size of a dime.

            Y is the yarn her stockings to mend was echoed in a wee basket about the size of a large walnut filled with miniature skeins of very fine wool and embroidery floss, and a pair of knitting needles Daddy must have carved down from toothpicks.

   Z is her zither, and this is the end,

and there was a tiny wooden zither, strung with thread, very much like the one I had, complete with tiny music-sheets.

But of course that wasn’t the end. Very soon I was reading it for myself. Gramma started me on Proverbs, then Psalms, and then simplified versions of Old and New Testament stories, most of which I already knew from her.
I was so blessed to receive the great gift of literacy from Tasha Tudor and my granny. A Is for Annabelle was just the beginning!....

This is not Abigail, although she did have
fair hair like this doll. The zither's right, though.

[1] Tasha Tudor (1915-2008), American writer, illustrator and gardener. Her work spans 70 yrs! She also made wonderful dollhouses; I have a book about them.
[2] Betsy McCall dolls had their origin in the paper dolls in McCall’s women’s magazine. Mine was made by the Ideal company.