Stand Up or Sit Out:
Memories and Musings of a Blind Wrestler,
Runner and All-around Regular Guy
Down the Bank
The 1950s witnessed the construction of housing developments by builders who erected block upon block of cookie-cutter homes the way farmers plant seeds. West Haverstraw was no exception. Except for different choices of color and styles of lawn manicuring, all the houses in our neighborhood looked quite similar. In 1957, my parents rented a one-floor A-frame house (no basement and a crawl-in attic) on Cameron Street, a side street three blocks from Railroad Avenue, the main street in town. By small-kid standards, we lived deep inside the development; by parental standards, it was a safe place for kids to play.
The neighborhood was ideal for the plethora of young children growing up there. Traffic on the streets was very light, and we could ride our bikes and play ball on them to our hearts' content. Bordering the development on its east side were the woods. Further to the east—about two miles away—loomed the Hudson River.
The entire area was historic. Battles and other incidents relating to the American Revolution (including the Battle of Stony Point, won by General Mad Anthony Wayne) took place near there. The site where Benedict Arnold handed Major John Andre the plans to West Point is also nearby.
The neighborhood in which we lived lay far uphill from the river, and peeking through the trees or down one of the side streets, you could always catch a glimpse of the river and, across the other side, the land rising up on the banks of Westchester County. For most of my life, I have lived within sight of the Hudson, a magnificent natural treasure. I have had the pleasure of boating upon it, swimming in it, diving beneath its surface, and simply regarding it as a symbol of my childhood stability.
The woods commenced at the edge of each property unfortunate enough to have been placed at the east side of the development. Kids were forced to trespass onto these properties to enter the woods. Although not expressly forbidden to go there, parents warned their children to be careful if they decided to enter the woods for a great game of army or to fish in the "big pond" located on the other side of the primeval expanse. "Little kids," as we preadolescents were called, were warned to watch out for snakes.
I didn't fully believe there actually were snakes in the woods until one day when a "big kid" captured a long snake, killed it, and then proceeded to parade it, hanging from a stick, around his block. I can still see it, vividly embedded in visual memory, hanging there.
The snake appeared to be at least three feet long. Terrified and growing queasy, I ran home to the safety of my mother's arms. The image gave me nightmares for years to come. Today, I retain a strong visceral fear of snakes—a primal instinct no doubt exacerbated by my inability to see.
In real life, I simply stay out of their habitat at all costs. Once, for example, it took me twenty-four hours to work up the nerve to leave a bungalow at a New Mexico resort because I didn't want to risk an encounter with one of the dozens of varieties of rattlesnakes (including the diamondback) boasted about in New Mexico travel literature. They should take more care with their advertising campaign.
Back in my old neighborhood, upon entering the woods, one experiences the ground dropping downhill rapidly, making for some great sleigh-riding in winter. Lenny and I spent many hours seeing how close we could get to near missing, with our sleds, the "big tree" at the bottom of the steepest hill. Because of this rapid shift in altitude, the geologists called the woods an embankment—we called them "the bank."
"Where are you going?" we'd ask each other.
"Down the bank," came the reply.
At age six, while playing with other children in one of the yards bordering the bank, an older boy, Frankie, asked me if I wanted to go on a hike into the woods. I clearly recall [my younger brother] Lenny, a toddler of three and a half years, warning me not to go. Heeding him not, I marched with Frankie down the hills and into the trees.
We walked down, around several looping paths, through the cattails, beyond the last sleigh-riding path, and into the unknown. The Hudson River stood majestically in front of us to the east, but although I thought it should have been growing bigger (it seemed we'd been walking toward the river forever), its profile didn't change. Getting anxious, I asked Frankie to take me back. "Just go to the top of that hill," he pointed, "and call for your brother. He'll hear you and guide you home."
I did as I was told. I walked to the top of the hill and called. To my consternation, Lenny did not answer. I realized that the hills, trees, and underbrush all looked the same to me. I thought, "I have no idea where to go." Spinning around, I saw to my horror that Frankie had left me. I was alone.
Resolving not to die in the forest, I turned my back on the Hudson and began walking uphill. This was the only thing that made sense. After all, I reasoned through quakes of panic, we'd walked down hill to get here; uphill must be the way back to the yard, and Lenny, and home.
I walked as straight up the hills as I could, the fact that we had traveled a meandering course to the point of my undoing nagging at me all the while. "How can walking straight get me home when I know we made several turns?" I moaned aloud. Desperate and crying, I kept turning around to assure myself the river still lay behind me and repeatedly called for Lenny. When still he did not answer, I reverted to calling for my mother. She didn't answer either.
In retrospect, I probably walked for no more than thirty minutes, but it seemed like hours to my six-year-old and addled mind. Still, I managed to pull myself together enough to talk myself into believing I would get out of the woods sooner or later. Noticing an unmistakable hint of fading daylight, I burst into a fresh set of tears. I couldn't see in the dark. My time was limited.
Although at age six I didn't fully comprehend the ramifications of lack of peripheral vision, when I walked, I instinctively looked down at the ground, occasionally scanning from side to side to prevent tripping on ruts or objects immediately in my path or slightly to either side.
I'd forgotten to raise my eyes to scan my surroundings for quite a while. Then a miracle happened. I looked up and saw above me the most beautiful sight I'd ever seen. Atop the hill I'd been climbing, hovering silhouetted against the dusky sky like an angel, stood the symbol of my salvation: a trash can.
Scrambling up the hill and lunging toward the can, I prayed amid sobs that there would be a house or some representation of the human race connected to that can. God must have heard me, for I emerged at the edge of someone's backyard.
"Hello," I shouted at the top of my voice. I could see lights on inside the back window, but couldn't see well enough to know if anyone was actually home. I held my breath, releasing it only when I saw an older man and woman emerge from the back door and move slowly toward me.
The man called to me, "What can I do for you, young man?" His voice was kind. An even kinder voice emanated from the woman accompanying him. "He's crying. Bring him into the house."
Lifting me over a low fence, the elderly coupled hugged me and led me to their back door. A minute earlier, I was alone in the woods. Now, I found myself gratefully sitting in a nice warm kitchen.
"What's your name?"
"Anthony," I answered.
"Do you know your phone number?" Luckily, I did. They called my mother, told her I was all right, and asked her to "come take your little boy home."
Meanwhile, Lenny had completed his play and gone home. After careful questioning, my mother ascertained that her oldest son had gone into the woods with another boy. She began to worry.
A half hour later, just as she was about to commence a search of the neighborhood, the phone rang.
Quickly turning off the stove and bundling up my newborn brother Joseph, she sprinted out of the house, forgetting to lock the front door. Carrying her infant in her arms and with Lenny running alongside her, my mother traversed the six-block equivalent space between our house and that of my rescuers in about ten minutes. By the time she got there, I had downed several cookies and a delicious glass of milk and had quite nicely, thank you, recovered from my ordeal.
I'm not sure my mother has yet. These many decades later, she continues to scold me for "going into those woods like that."
Perhaps I too haven't fully recovered. To this day, I still shiver a little when I recall the details of my adventure. Trash cans retain a special place in my heart, and my love of cookies has not diminished. Probably most important, I still look, both literally and figuratively, with trepidation upon the uncertainties of uncharted terrain. I feel more comfortable, for example, with a plan of action, a sense of how things work, and an understanding of what is normally expected in social situations.
I did learn one lesson: to trust Lenny's judgment when it comes to right and wrong. He became my moral barometer. While growing up, whenever I thought about pulling a prank or venturing beyond the bounds of parental permission, I looked to Lenny for his opinion. If he said okay, we went for it. If he said no, I usually didn't risk breaking a rule I well knew I shouldn't.
Problematic was the fact that Lenny wasn't always consistent. Years later, for example, while at play, Lenny and I were attacked by neighborhood kids in a field that contained piles of dirt and stones. A rock-throwing fight ensued with Lenny and I pinned behind one pile of dirt and the "enemy" behind another. Lenny drew first blood, nailing one of the neighborhood kids on the head. In the meeting that followed, my parents learned that he had suffered a small cut and mild bump and would be just fine. Unfortunately, the worm turned on me.
As I opened my mouth to defend Lenny, the neighbor kid's older sister, there to defend her brother and get revenge, proceeded to tell my father that I had recently sassed the school bus driver. Lenny remained silent. It was I who ended up on the receiving end of a mighty spanking for being disrespectful to my elders. Somehow, Lenny managed to go unscathed.