Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2020

A Child’s Christmas in Woodridge

Filed under: Catskills,literature — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

No matter how old I get, I’ll always have vivid memories of being a small boy in Woodridge, NY and doing all the things small kids do. Like walking in the woods, swimming in the ponds and rivers, riding my bike, flipping baseball cards, and playing ringolevio.

But winter had its special pleasures. Back then, the snowstorms were long before greenhouse gases tamed mother nature. After a big snowfall, we’d build forts in downtown Woodridge and throw snowballs at each other. We’d also have free rein sledding on the village’s hills, with no worries about cars since the roads were barely passable.

In this chapter from Robert C. Harris’s 2008 “Collection of Autobiographical Stories”, you’ll get a good taste of the excitement of wintertime. Robert’s mother Eleanor and mine were very close. Eleanor wrote a column called Woodridge Whirl for the local paper and my mother took it over after the Harrises moved to Florida.

Half of Robert’s book deals with his misadventures in the US army during the Vietnam war. The other half is reminiscences of being a young boy in Woodridge. I enjoy every chapter but this one about sleigh-riding the most. If you’ve read (or better yet, heard the author recite) Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, you’ll appreciate Robert’s ability to render a long-ago experience. I imagine he wrote this primarily in the same way I have blogged about Woodridge, to recapture my past—sort of an amateur version of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Woodridgites will probably enjoy this more than the average person but I am sure that it will bring back your own favorite memories of playing in the snow, an experience that future generations will never enjoy as much as us—largely because of climate change. This year in New York City, there was virtually no snow at all.

And, going one step further, the conditions that created climate change are largely responsible for the pandemic that keeps us house-bound today.

Chapter 9

The happiest time in any man’s life is the time before he becomes a man. Now take me. Today I am a man and when I see Woodridge as it is today, I am not giddy with joy, but giddy with souped-up memories. Back then, to my childish and fun-loving libido, I saw Woodridge as the fairyland playground of the nation, Disney Lands notwithstanding, and we kids didn’t even have to pay to get in. Like commercial playgrounds everywhere, each season offered its special attractions.

In the spring, sweaters and jackets strewn along the grounds, we boys ran rampant among the rocks and crevices of Dead Man’s Canyon, our pop guns cocked for action. In the summer, there was Kaplan’s Lake. The cowboys and Indians of the spring were now deep sea divers in the four to six feet of water, splashing, dunking and grabbing ankles or higher. Girls were now a part of the summer attraction and their squeals from our underwater attacks gave meaning to the summer. In the autumn, we boys became habitués of the Ford Dealership yard, racing across imaginary tapes and then moving across to The Tree where, in the bracing air, we were defending Fort Germac from the invaders with our BB guns and apple grenades ready for action.

But it was winter that gave meaning to the winter wonderland songs I remember. Even if one shivered in the cold, nature’s artwork was awesome. The scraggly trees of autumn were now covered in white and adorned with sparkly icicles hanging from the branches like so many fashionably gowned and jewelled women at the Oscar Awards waiting to be admired. But to us, the three Fox boys, Bobby Ritter, David and Paul Kaplan, Ivan Katz, Stuey Novack, Steve and Bobby Wasserman, Steve Gerson, Jay Weinstein and the Sapersteins and every kid still breathing, it was the blinding snow and biting cold that activated our adrenalin. We would embark on a mass exodus from our homes to slosh through the snow, the deeper and wetter the more exciting. Our mittens and gloves were soaked through within minutes as we hurled snowballs at each other and anything else that moved, mostly girls. With our noses running before us and our sleds trailing behind us, we made our way to the slopes. We had two unforgettable hills in Woodridge which nature undeniably devised for exuberant and risk-taking kids. As we trudged uphill, pulling our sleds, one of us was sure to yell ‘up yours’ or some such local witticism, about snow and the upper crust of the down-hillers. Fickle nature. It lures us out of our homes with promises of adventure and then slaps us in the face with icy pellets. But we didn’t care, we had two of the greatest hills in the world. The one at the Alamac Hotel was the smaller of the two. The other, aptly names Little Mt. Everest, was located on acreage behind the Kaplan properties. Subsequently, this property was developed into spacious, expensive single family homes. But at this time in my youth it was the longest, widest, steepest mountain on the planet. Woodridge’s challenge to the Alpine peaks.

It was easier to use the Alamac hill because the hotel was closed for the winter and there was no one to yell at us. It was located just across from Barry Saperstein’s house and it took no more than a fifteen or twenty second zoom to the bottom of the hill. The idea was to grab the tree at the bottom of the hill or risk bouncing across the street to be hit by an oncoming car or, as an alternative, crashing into the Saperstein porch. We kids were lucky, none of us were killed. But sometimes, less lethal but awfully insulting, an irate driver would question the functionality of our brain matter by screeching to a stop and yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You kids nuts or something?”

Most of us were good at grabbing the tree for braking but it was my brother, Walter, who excelled at dreaming up schemes for stunt riding, urged and seconded by Carl Novick and Steve Wasserman. Stunt riding as defined by our group was anything that would scare the hell out of our parents and medical advisors. One of the milder stunts was to stand up on the sled, rope in one hand for stability, while hurtling down the slope waving the other hand and yelling, “Hi ho Silver!” Or, cross one sled with another to resemble an airplane with one kid sitting in the middle steering with his feet, rope in hand, while two more boys stood on each of the ‘wings’ for balance. The goal was to make it to the bottom of the hill without crashing and with all three intact, which never happened—except that one time. On New Year’s Day our snow plane went into action. Our three made it to the bottom, in one piece and in perfect formation. The sled followed sometime later. There we were, the three of us, Steve Gerson, Barry Saperstein and me, lying splayed in the snow in perfect formation, with everyone whooping and cheering around us as if we just won the World Series.

But the greater adventure, the most Evel Kneivelish daring-do was on the slopes of Little Mt. Everest. Gliding down this mountain (to our unformed, ungeological minds this was truly a mountain) was the ultimate test of courage. In our little town, comprised mainly of Jewish families, the villagers naively believed a boy became a man at his Bar Mitzvah. We kids knew better. A boy became a man on the ride down Little Mt. Everest. Unlike the twenty second downhill zoom of the Alamac, downhill on the Everest was an endless, death-defying, marathon race that only the hardy need attempt. We were all hardy.

Racing down hill was the number one game. With at least ten sleds tearing down the long, interminable slope at any one time, it was not so much a race to the finish as a finish to the racer. Sleds crashed into each other, kids went flying, bloodied but unbowed; some actually un-bowelled, as it scared the crap out of us. But we carried on and once in a great while we were carried off.

Then there was our two-man sled exchange. Picture it, Stevie Gerson is lying face down on the sled and Jay Weinstein is kneeling on Stevie’s back. Stevie’s lying down because he has to steer; this was how the expression “Get off my back” entered the English language. Anyway, on the way down, in mid-ride, Jay would jump up into the air and onto a companion sled which was being operated by Ivan Katz. With arms flailing and feet moving wildly, similar to that portrayed in cartoon movies where the guy absent mindedly walks off a cliff and keeps walking in space, the sled exchange occurred. It was risky stuff. There was always the possibility that one might break the neck of the driver—in such cases it was better to jump to the ground for then one was likely to suffer only from snow burn—or slightly worse, loss of face if not of blood.

But we kids were adept at timing our jumps. Snow burns, bruises and other injuries were as natural to our age group as acne would some day be to our aging group. As to the one whose back was used as a springboard, well, what’s an aching spine when one is contributing so much to cultural achievement?

The excitement created by Little Mt. Everest was in its width, its clear course going all the way down without obstacles aside from a few dips and bumps. It was the stone wall at the bottom of the hill that gave meaning to the expression that death is always a surprise. On the same line with the stone wall, near its end, was a mammoth Coca-Cola sign, once impressive in its prime but now bent at a 45 degree angle obscuring its message of promised refreshment. The tin back of the sign made a dandy landing-strip for us when we steered towards it and used our feet as brakes. When this worked, as it normally did, we kids found it as refreshing as promised. Although we were adept at this foot-dragging-braking method, we decided to build snow barriers as an extra precaution to ensure we stopped successfully on our tin landing strip and didn’t go bounding off into the next county. To this end the snow barriers were built just beyond the wall and the sign; the ice on the tin was covered with stones and whatever sharp, jutting material we could find. I notice that building contractors today lack the gusto and ingenuity our team exhibited. Our bulldozer was us. Man, we dug, we tossed, we slid. We froze. All this before we climbed to the top. We kids had it together in the 5os. Energy, sleds, running noses and frozen feet—and an occasional enthusiast with wet pants.

On one beautiful, clear day following the Christmas holidays, we were out in full force, many of us with newer and more powerful sleds, some even with skis. We were racing down Everest, about nine sleds, towards the finish line. It was a close race with Walter in the lead. As we began to slow down near the finish line, the Coca-Cola landing strip, Walter decided to keep going. He had this determined look on his face, not unlike the look of someone daring to go where no man has dared to go. While the rest of us came to a stop, he kept going—over the snow barrier, over the sign, over the wall. As we turned our startled gazes upon Walter, it was like a slow motion movie with Walter hovering in space about forty feet above the ground, holding on to his inverted sled, which had done a complete turn in mid-air. All sound ceased as we witnessed this bizarre scene—Walter hanging on to his upside-down sled with his back towards the ground. Suddenly the reel sped up and down he hurtled into the snow below. The dreamlike sequence was over as everyone realized what had happened and rushed down to the road. My heart was in my mouth. My big brother was not supposed to get hurt; I was.

We had to run about 200 yards down to the street next to the hill, then climb through a barbed wire fence that was located in the back yard of the Kaplan property as a barrier between their yard and the hill. Then we had to step through snow that was about four feet deep. After what seemed like a deathly ten minutes, we located the sled. All we saw protruding from the pile of snow were the rudders but no sign of Walter. Frightened, we all tugged the sled free—and

there lay Walter, still holding on to his sleigh with that glazed, disbelieving look in his eye.

He stared at all of us and with his eleven year old face lit up with a strange and abstracted smile he announced: “I was flying! I was actually flying!”

2 Comments »

  1. <>

    Comrade,

    I enjoyed your joy in reminiscence of childhood. That sense of freedom and exuberance you had as a child is almost exactly, minus the snows, of course, growing up as I did in Mobile, AL where I lived until I moved to LA at the age of 15.

    You had snow, but we had the swamp. Where we would ‘shoot hooky’ (ditch school). We would each bring a potato along to roast in a made campfire. If we were lucky we would be able to down a bird or three with our BB guns, tear off the heads, pluck the feathers disembowel and roast on a improvised spit. I know its cruel but it was a joy of childhood. Picking blackberries we had to be aware of the occasional water moccasin (cottonmouth) but no one ever got bit.

    Just before the swamp was the baseball area where we would play in semi-organized leagues every spring to summer. This brings up a couple of incidents that belie the idyllic scenes I just set:

    We were playing streetball when a ball was hit over my head and I ran to chase it and throw it back in. Out there I noticed a station wagon with 6 nuns in it. Being Catholic I ran over to see if they needed directions when I stopped 10 feet from the car cause the driver needed a shave. “Klan!”, I yelled and rushed back to my friends. The neighbors came out and the criminals fled.

    The other incident involved Mardi Gras. At a parade a white boy, bout my age which was maybe 12, came along with a basket of roasted peanuts that he was selling. Next to me a little black kid bout our age held out a dime to him. The vendor asked “Y’all wont some pie-nuts?” “Yes, sir” was the kid’s answer. That was the start of a realization that led to a transformation. That was when I first knew, realized, that something was rotten in Denmark. The Klan we understood in their hatred of us. But the black kid’s response triggered the train that led to the thought that that hatred, all around us in segregated Alabama, had triggered its opposite in ourselves, a hatred of ourselves.

    This is illustrated by the fact that, to this day, there is an intra-racial racism in conquered peoples, around the world, demonstrated by the fact that we, the lighter skinned, feel and are looked upon as superior to our darker brothers. Despite, or maybe because of the fact that the lighter skinned’s ancestors were raped more often and the darker skinned resisted more. There was a tv show, “Frank’s Place”, (taking place in NOLA) discussing the ‘paper bag test’ where to join a social club one had to be lighter than that paper bag. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4137914?seq=1

    This realization, occurring in many at many places was the start of the “Black Power Movement” and its herald “Black is Beautiful”.

    Comment by John A Imani — May 20, 2020 @ 11:17 pm

  2. I think I’ve mentioned before that my grandparents owned a small hotel a few miles from Woodridge (“Wutrich”) where Milk Road meets Route 52. We spent Xmas vacations there in the early 1950s. And we built a sled run! From the hotel’s lawn, across a small stream and down a steep stretch along a stone wall and then out on the frozen lake (a dammed up part of the Beer Kill).

    The run was about 1/4 mile, and I swear a trip down on a Flexible-Flier lasted about a 45 seconds, which put our speed at about 20 mph.

    Those were the days my friends … .

    Comment by davidberger6799 — May 21, 2020 @ 4:27 am


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