Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spearing the Dusky Colored Carp

There were far fewer choices for clothes shopping in the Warwick of the early 70s. Paramus wasn’t even considered by my family for shopping, and Middletown was as it still is twenty miles away. My parents always seemed to be at work in my early life, and it was a rare occasion when they would make that trek to Middletown. A drive to Middletown was usually a weekend event, and this was before the Orange Plaza succeeded at making its downtown a string of storefronts with “for sale” and “for lease’ signs. Of course, during the summer we would always make the trip out to the Orange County fairgrounds in Middletown for the County Fair; that was a long held tradition in my mother’s family.

I don’t remember the stores so much as I do remember the Coney Island hotdog place on the stretch of storefronts that first appear after getting off of Dolson Avenue. Middletown's impressive stone Police Station and its old railway station were just around the corner to the left where a parking lot also stood for establishments like the Coney Island Hotdog place. I can remember sitting in one of their cozy booths with my family and getting through at least two of that restaurant's world-famous, or, at least, locally famous, chilly dogs on a bun at one sitting. I would rarely eat much of anything else except sweets before the age of 13. Thirteen was when my appetite finally kicked in, and I imagine at that point I could have eaten as many as were put before me.

It only occurred to me much later that those hotdog recipe originated someplace other than Middletown, NY and that Coney Island was a real place in Brooklyn. New York City wasn't a frequent destination for my family or me; I was a local Warwick boy. School trips eventually got me to the Big Apple before it was the "Big Apple." The fact that one of my great-grandfathers spent his teenage years and early twenties delivering ice block from a horse-drawn panel wagon in the real Coney Island as a newly arrived immigrant before he made his way to the Warwick area was only shared with me many years later.

Somewhere between my vague memories of shopping in downtown Middletown and strolling the carpeted Orange Plaza there were trips to Playtogs, and the tradition of Coney Island hotdogs was eventually supplanted by a visit to Carroll hamburgers, a short-lived burger and fries chain that resembled McDonalds in its choice of fare and packaging. It was right next to Playtogs, and I imagine that this was more of a reason to go there than anything else for my parents. My sister and I thought it was the "cat's meow" (an idiom we obviously picked up from someone far older than us), and we responded to its cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake much like my own son puzzlingly responds to McDonalds even though the only occasion he gets to satisfy this urge is when we are travelling long distances, and his parents have no other choices. Carrolls was every bit as important a destination as Playtogs was to my sister and I back then.

Playtogs may still be there? I haven’t been to Middletown since the time I lived across from the Thrall Library on Orchard Street while going to the community college in what seems another lifetime. Playtogs had just about everything that a kid would want. Kids were bombarded with just as much television advertising as they are today back in the early 70s, but I for one simply spent more time playing outside when the weather permitted than sitting in front of the TV. Playtogs had the stuff that television brainwashed us into thinking we had to have; the commercials seemed a whole lot more aggressive than today, but maybe that is just because I was young and impressionable? I know that there was a lot less to watch back then during the daytime or after school. We only got channels 2,4,5,7, 9,11, and sometimes 13 in Warwick on rabbit ears or with a rooftop antennae.

I do remember spending weeks after school watching the entirety of the Watergate Hearings; I can't really say why? I may have understood the significance of that moment in history. I had a budding interest in elections, and how they worked at the time. I had no political preferences, and I can't say that I paid much heed to what the adults around me thought. There was a lot of free RNC campaign posters and information mailed to our house during the 1972 Presidential Election; my Dad must have made a contribution to the campaign. These found their way onto my bedroom wall with Nixon and the 35 other past heads of state peering down at me ( Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, and he only appeared once on the poster). I had a few Nixon campaign buttons too that I found amongst my Dad's change on his dresser. These started me off collecting buttons from both major parties right up until this day. I found an FDR button in an attic around this time too, and that meant a lot to me.

I don't remember seeing or getting any McGovern stuff, but then again if my parents ever voted I'm pretty sure it would have been for a Republican. Paradoxically, they took it upon themselves to praise Kennedy repeatedly to me, and one of the only oil paintings displayed in a frame on the wall of our house, among others I knew to exist from a time before I was born, was one of the 33rd president himself. To be fair, there was one of Ike too, in the closet. It may have been an identification with the GOP that inspired someone in my family to suggest to me to name my first pet, a miniature turtle, "Humphrey," in the heat of the 1968 primaries, but the joke was admittedly lost to me until almost a decade after I accepted the name and in the matter of a couple of weeks found the little guy forever belly up in his lima bean shaped habitat with the to-scale fake palm tree and diving board.

Around the time of Nixon's landslide victory, Playtogs was a place of unfathomable immensity for me. By puberty it suddenly and irrevocably was neither exciting nor awe-inspiring. Playtogs was more simply cheap and embarrassing to be frequenting due to a newly acquired self-consciousness made possible by classmates who had learned discretion and pretense early. They had learned that taking advantage of bargains was one thing and telling everyone that you did so was another; we are funny creatures aren’t we? The fact was that everyone was there getting those bargains because it was always a “mad house” with people seemingly climbing over one another as Mom would often report to my Dad. He preferred to leave the shopping to her.

Playtogs didn’t try to hide the fact that they were peddling seconds in bulk, and that what they had could be had cheaply. They waved flags to call attention to the fact, and that was integral to their success. This was in contrast to a store like Gilvans in downtown Warwick which sold second quality clothing but used clever merchandizing to do so. No one was being fooled about what was being offered up on a platter but something can be said for the power of presentation. My mom frequented Gilvans, when she could afford it (or thought she could afford it). She bought stuff for us kids that she might very well have found at Playtogs for far less.

She, like so many people even to this day, simply wanted to shop nearby for what she needed rather spending half the day going to and fro Middletown. Warwick was her hometown, and she once recalled to me a haberdashery that her family frequented most of her childhood in the late 40s though the 50s. The haberdashery, a word I have liked since the first time I heard it in reference to Harry Truman, stood on Oakland Avenue across from the Oakland Theater. I can’t recall the name, but I am sure someone does?

The cement block building I remember on the site, that had likely been a replacement for something earlier like the haberdashery, is now long gone. It had been the headquarters of WTBQ Radio before they moved to the old Miller & Stockton lumberyard offices. For a seemingly brief period after that it had been La Dolce Vita Restaurant until a fire gutted it, and it was eventually demolished in the early 80s.

I remember seeing Ed Klein in his beige circa 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 pulling up in front of the radio station. I recall the Toyota so vividly because this was a time when Japanese imports were still a novelty. I recall seeing Dick Wells in proximity to the building as well; his reddish brown hair was striking in the sunlight. I remember asking who all these people were that went in and out of the radio station when we passed in the car down Oakland Avenue. At some point I think I probably matched the booming voice of Wells from the radio with that guy with the reddish brown hair on the street as well as Klein’s own voice with the small man climbing down from the Toyota.

Playtogs was a far different place than anything I ever experienced in our small and quiet town, and as someone reminded me recently there was stuff in full view that maybe you would otherwise never see anywhere else. There were neon colored womens' things offered up in piles, and there was an even more risque display of "edible undies" at one point, according to a friend who said that her and her siblings had many laughs about this. There was other tacky stuff which I don't remember because I probably never ventured over in that part of the store; I learned early about the tediousness of accompanying a women shopping for her own clothes. Mannikins with daring see-through black lingerie on, and the like, were on view to gawk at too, according to this friend.

I had a short stint working at Playtogs pushing carts and mopping up aisle messes as a student at the nearby college, so if there was any residual magic for me about the place it was gone by the time I punched my time card at the end of that first day of work there when I was 18 or 19. Someone recently reminded me of the filth of the bathrooms and the changing rooms, and how you didn't dare go bare foot in them to try things on; something else I was oblivious to as a child. The crowds were my greatest objection to the place; it seemed that you could barely move at times in the store.

The aforementioned job at Playtogs ended one day when I was told to clean up a toilet that had backed up and was spewing raw sewage out onto the store floor. One look at it, and I knew it was beyond me. The owners, whose names escape me, paid me in full and never mentioned the incident a week later to my surprise. These guys wasted little time or pretense retailing their stock. The plywood bins painted in institutional shades of green and baby blue had seemingly remained unaltered serving the store’s needs from my early childhood as a shopper to well-beyond my own employment there as a young adult.

Clothes were folded a mile high in these bins or more often in a tossed salad after hoards of mothers seeking bargains descended on them; this was true when my mother looked for our always elusive sizes as well as when I was frequently instructed to bring some order to the clothes in these bins years later as an employee. This was especially true of the most desirable labels like Levis and Lee jeans, and, for some reason, my family and I always got to the bins in their most chaotic state after everyone else had had a look. That reality would usually dictate my own disappointment of leaving the store with a pair of eight dollar Wrangler jeans, or even worse, Big Yank, instead of a fifteen dollar pair of Levis back in the day. I recall feeding into the whole carpenter pants and bib overall craze of the 70s and tring to satisfy that at Playtogs, so that was probably the last of my own shopping experiences there accompanied by a parent.

Before I cared at all about what I wore, Playtogs was a place of aisle upon aisle of toys and other things that would tempt almost any pre-adolescent. With each visit there was a regular routine of being prepped in the car about the rules of staying nearby in the store and not wandering off with a number of patent bribes like “if you do that we won't go to Carrolls or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or to the Coney Island hot dog place downtown. Guess what? The bribes never worked. At this time I was as skinny as a rail and could be just as happy not to eat regardless of what carrot was being dangled before me, but that never occurred to my mother.

My perimeters were verbally defined but they were soon breached when I got a sniff of toys or sporting goods once inside. The clothing bins aforementioned were some 36 inches high and when you take into consideration the height of the stacked clothes in them and the shopping carts and yapping adults very little could be seen by me or any other kid beyond their mom or dad or whomever was with them and your own shopping cart. This also contributed to my ability to steal away undetected. As a consequence of this flight, I eventually heard my name resound over the PA system in the store accompanied by “will you please come to the courtesy desk; your mother is waiting for you.” That happened just about every time that we went to Playtogs. I can recall my mom getting totally teed off once I swaggered over to the courtesy desk ten minutes later. She would make her way through the gauntlet of arcade games that buzzed and rang as she passed unfazed towards the front door after checking out, and then I would pursue her in panic.

Gone Fishing

Where was it that I went in the Playtogs store exactly? I was usually drawn to the aisle with the fishing poles, and there I would fantasize about owning any one of the fancy rod and reels on display. They had a large stock of fishing and hunting gear. I was never much of a fisherman but I was convinced that having the right tackle would make all the difference in the world. I am a child of conspicuous consumption; aren’t I? On my tenth birthday all that previous time spent in the sporting goods aisle resulted in a new rod and reel that replaced a cheaper non functional one that had been passed down to me.

As a kid who really knew little about the sport beyond baiting a hook with a worm and dropping the line into the water I made the mistake of picking a far cheaper reel than rod, which probably resulted from an attempt to stay within a certain price range. I remember the rod being the outrageous sum of twenty five dollars and the simple reel being five dollars at a time when my father was probably bringing home a little more than 200 dollars a week for delivering lumber for Conklin & Strong’s and my mom far less as a waitress at the Clover Leaf Restaurant in Goshen. That cheap reel insured that I spent a lot more time winding and unwinding line by hand than catching any fish.

My mother went along with the fishing gear purchase because she knew even less than I did about fishing. She would have spent her last dollar for us kids to make us happy. A GI Joe with Kung-Fu grip as well as one of Joe’s patent "expedition"scenarios complete with all kinds of accessories, set her back a few more dollars and added to my booty on this particular trip to Middletown. I used the rod and reel for many years, although Joe met some mishap in a snow pile on the telephone company property on High Street. His interior elastic snapped and his legs and arms went flying. He no doubt froze internally and went to pieces.

Fishing remained an important part of my activity. The creeks and ponds within walking distance of my house on High Street were my domain for the time I spent living in the village. I would snag some dusky colored carp in the pond at Memorial Park occasionally, scoop up sunfish and blue gill from Paddock’s Pond behind their radio and TV repair shop, and, of course, Black Rock Creek was the place to dip your hook into an icy cold pool of water for the occasional speckled trout. An old friend recently informed me that there wasn’t much water or fish flow in that creek these days given all the housing development in the last few decades; the ground water has seemingly been sucked up leaving the creek practically bone dry.

There was a guy by the name of “Rich” and his wife who lived down in the hired man’s “coop,” as we called it, on my grandmother’s farm (Fair Meade Farm on Rt.94) for awhile. The coop was this simple one room apartment built into one of the wagon stalls of an open front outbuilding. It had a kitchenette, a wood burning stove for heat, a cramped bathroom, and a window at both ends. Rich came from somewhere other than Warwick, and he was a bit scary with his arsenal of hunting rifles. He also had more than his fair share of fishing gear, inflatable boats, an Amphicat , like TV’s Banana Splits were known to drive, and hunting trophies in every shape and color. These trophies were of the stuffed head and posed body variety , and there were also pelts of zebras, lions, and the like that he brought out a number of times and shared with those who were interested. I was a bit taken in by all the exoticism myself.

It seemed like this guy had come straight from years on safari to the farm. All this packed into a 150 square foot oblong box that farmhands had more often occupied over the years since my grandfather had added two more stalls to the outbuilding and enclosed the one stall in the older section to make the “coop” as a place for them to live.The story was that the “coop” had originally been enclosed as a hen house but I have never seen any evidence of that, but that would explain the name. There was storage space above this apartment that Rich tucked away his fair share of possessions.

I am not sure what Rich did for a living but he spent a lot of time shooting guns with Joe Rudy, whose parents, Clifford “Chippy” and Marie Rudy rented the farm during the 1970s and ran a dairy. At some point Rich asked my grandmother if he could use the carriage barn across the road to sell some of his things; it may have been so that he could pay the rent. I was around 10 then, so I wasn’t aware of everything. She complied having often made agreements with previous tenants so that they could pay their rent when they were down on their luck. She once took a copper metal whisky still for payment, and whenever I passed it in the basement of the main farmhouse years later I wondered whether any moonshine had ever been concocted on the farm with old grandma at one end of the twisted copper pipe with a cup ready. My guess now is no. She tried her hand at making beer once; it tasted a bit flat years later when i happened upon a bunch of it on one of the "swing" shelves in the cellar. She brewed up some delicious root beer too and bottled it for us kids, but I never saw any signs of corn mash cooking.

At Rich’s ongoing yard sale I purchased a number of old issues of the National Rifle Association magazine with his previous and numerous return addresses on them. An ancient wooden creel was another purchase of mine for 5 dollars. That creel accompanied me on many of my fishing adventures up and down Black Rock Creek. These fishing trips started by foot from our house on High Street down South Street to South Street Extension. From there a friend, including at one time or another Mike Massone, George Broughton, Hagen Schultz, Billy Roome, Tommy Henderson, Marvin Gove and others, accompanied me through fields and woods in search of the perfect fishing hole and some adventure. Sometimes those trips brought me to beyond the Welling Farm, Och’s Orchard , Rudy’s Farm, and to what I remember as the Nichols Farm next to Fair Meade Farm, before that farmland became a housing development, in search of some fish to brag about because i wasn't all that keen on eating what I caught at that point.

There were landmarks along the way that I always visited. In the stretch of woods that runs along the large field on the western portion of the Fair Meade Farm there was a cement collecting pool usually filled with water and an old farm dump that was strewn with broken milk bottles from F.C. Raynor’s bottled milk business. Below the surface of that long forgotten dump I discovered on one fishing trip some lead toy soldiers. Attached to the cement pool where long sections of three inch iron pipe ran all the way down the mountain. Much of the pipe had separated from each other over the years due to some deliberate act by someone or by the power of ice freezing inside of them.

The cement pool and the pipes were all part of a gravity fed water works that I presume was used during the warm weather to fill a network of water troughs for cows pasturing on the west side of the farm before my grandfather bought the place. At least one such cement cattle trough still exists in the large field created when my grandfather buried many of the existing stone walls that had once defined many smaller fields in times past. Cows haven’t been seen on that side of the road as it has been tilled for alfalfa, timothy, and cow corn for as long as I remember, but there is a culvert that runs under Rt.94 that I suspect was used to transfer cows from one side of the road to the other for pasturage. That was likely happening in the 50s and 60s.

The water pipe was cut up and carted away along with much metal debris around the farm for scrap in the 70s by Leonard Brown, who once worked on the farm as a young man for my grandfather, so only the cement pool remains. In addition to these later signs of human habitation there is a fieldstone foundation to a small house across the creek in a wooded grove. The fieldstone foundation is deep enough that you can stand up in it. The foundation’s dimensions are roughly 20 by 15; it has been stuffed with the debris from trees cut down in this particular stretch of woods for the past couple of decades.

Standing under the trees next to the foundation were a number of castoffs from my mother’s childhood just laying there as though they had been played with and left to weather with the seasons. Among these was a metal doll house with cut-out windows. All of the interior and exterior details of this doll house were stenciled on it. The roof had rusted over time but the rest of it seemed largely intact, and when I passed on fishing trips I would always make a pilgrimage to it. On the other side of the creek was a more recent farm dump that included orange colored tubing from a silage blower, the remains of my cousin’s metal push pedal fire chief’s car with a pitted chrome bell on its hood, and the rotted remains of a flexible flyer in addition to everything else imaginable.

These journeys up and down Warwick’s creeks didn’t begin until after my sister and I stopped going down to the farm and started staying with the Rudys regularly. In the early 70s my sister and I would spend summer days there while our parents were at work. “Chippy” and Marie Rudy had three children: Joe, Mary, and Janet. Mary was our babysitter from 8-5 during the week and sometimes Saturdays during summer vacation. It was an ideal situation because I got to roam the farm much as I had done for most of my short life while when when cousins and I all lived on the farm. We lived in town by the beginning of the 70s and my cousins had left the farm for Greenwood Lake.

When I was in high school my sister and I returned to the farm to eventually live with my grandmother, but by that time pole fishing became more infrequent and was supplanted by hunting. The time I had spent running up and down the creeks was now spent walking through the woods and the grassy fields blasting off 22s and 12 gauge shells with a single shot J.C. Higgins 22 I had refinished and an old pump action J.C. Higgins shotgun that had belonged to my grandfather (yes, it did kick like a mule). There were occasions to spear fish too; suckers, or those dusky colored carp, which ran every spring. There was an especially deep part of the creek near a culvert that burst with these fish during their seemingly brief period of spawning. My sister and I would both grab a fishing spear from the garage and head down to the creek at this time. The spear consisted of a metal pronged head with four or five barbed ends attached to a wood pole.

It was my grandmother that encouraged us to get down to the creek and get as many of those suckers as we could. Once a DEC officer pulled over at the side of Rt.94 in plain view of me with the spear and asked what I was up to. I held up one thrashing specimen and yelled “suckers.” His response was telling of the lack of respect these particular fish get from just about everybody; he yelled back “knock yourself out kid!” There were no restrictions on spearing these fish which were the scaly equivalent of pigeons for most, but everyone was wrong about them being practically inedible. There were a lot of bones in them, but grandma had a remedy for that.

With a sharp knife, my grandmother would cut thick and almost boneless filets from the sides of those bulky fish. If we came back with a dozen, she had quite a heaping pile of meat on the kitchen counter that she would season, bread, and fry on her 1936 Kalamazoo combination wood and gas kitchen stove. The stove had been a wedding gift and served her daily cooking and baking needs well into the 1980s. Most scoff at my advocacy of the carp no matter what I tell them, but we learned to love fish on the carp we got from the lazy creek that meandered through the farm. The carp were just a fraction of the free bounty to be had, and the free stuff that you found on the farm was always the best tasting as grandma always said. She grew just about everything she could from seed as well as in a garden I have never been able to match.

On one of these carp spearing days I discovered white parsnips on the banks of the creek; some had been exposed by the erosion caused by swelling spring waters. When I showed them to my grandmother she sent me back for a pot full but not too many so that they would continue to grow in this spot for years to come. She cooked them up that night, and they were the sweetest and tastiest tubers I ever had, and that’s from somebody who preferred Cambell’s soup and toast to anything else. Occasionally, I wish that grandma knew something about wild mushrooms back then as I have always been amazed by the variety and quantity of mushrooms in the New York woods as well as here in Maine.

A few years back my sister-in-law was living in a log cabin in Cape Rossier, Maine. Her Russian mother-in-law would join her for the summer and pick oodles of mushrooms, prepare them, and eat them. I puzzled over her confidence with North American varieties given that she had lived her whole life on the other side of the world in a suburb of Moscow. None of us ever dared to try the mushrooms that she picked. She never did get sick from them, which makes me think that we were all missing out on something good.

The last time I remember going fishing in Warwick was at the cow pond on the Hamp Wilcox property off of Rt.94. My grandmother had told me that the pond was there, and that it might be a place to take a dip in the hot summer. She emphasized that I shouldn’t go skinny dipping because she seemed to know that there were snapping turtles in there. I did, and luckily I never did have any mishaps with a snapping turtle. I reached this pond that is hidden from passersby on Rt.94 and Sanfordville Road, or at least it was. I have learned recently that they built a new school out there in the past few years.

I reached the cow pond on the Wilcox property by walking “cross lots” from Fair Meade Farm to the swampy lowlands before Sanfordville Road. This area lay fallow for many years, and there was much clump grass and cattails. There was also a creek that snaked through the dense vegetation that I had to traverse at the same place every time to avoid getting two sneakers full of bog water. I have seen in recent years that someone trenched the property to drain it for planting corn.

There are also greenhouses and some other structures that have sprung up since I was beating a path through there in the late 70s. To get to the pond I had to climb through a barbed wire fence, cross Sandfordville Road, and then cross part of the huge field where the pond lay. There was a dirt road and a gate that let you into the field but I avoided that. The pond was a great place to get away to for fishing and skating in the winter.

From the vantage point of that pond there were no visible signs of human habitation other than the manicured field, and during the many times I spent there I never saw anyone else. The fishing was mostly sunnies, crappies, and blue gills, but the place was a little bit of paradise. I spent a lot of time there staring up at the mountains in the distance and enjoying the quietude in those brutal years of high school, and when I entered the house with that Playtogs fishing pole and reel in one hand and that wooden creel filled with a bunch of small fish grandma was always there ready to clean and fry them up.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Robert, for this blog. You have sharpened many blurred memories, summoning the pangs of nostalgia. Your knowledge of our hometown's history is always informative, never pedantic. Your personal point of view rings true to my own.

    As a side note, I always thought Raynor's truck was a Chevy Apache - the one with the dancing pigs on the sides. Do you remember the snapshots posted in Raynor's window of the homes for sale? There was a time when I could identify the location and owner of each house on offer.

    Tempus fugit.
    Bob Lawton