Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: Staying cool in the summers of my past


WILLIAMSTOWN — In the steamy days of summer, I need not go far to find relief from the heat, staying in my air-conditioned condo unit or swimming in the condo pool.

When I was growing up in New York and the summer sun beat down on the tar roof of the building where my family lived, our apartment on the top floor was stifling. And we did not even own a fan.

Children cooled off by running through the water gushing from Johnny Pumps. In my neighborhood, the tough boy we stayed clear of other days became our "hero" as he opened the fire hydrant with a wrench.

"Momma, the fire hydrant is open," I blurted when Mother answered my knock on our front door.

"OK, but be back here soon. I don't want you catching your death," Mother said, "And put on your old shoes."

I hurried to the bedroom my two older sisters and I shared, slipped into my swimsuit, and squeezed my feet into the old shoes I had outgrown.

Once in a while Mother took us to Orchard Beach. It was the nearest beach to our home, yet we had to ride the subway and then a bus to reach it. If Father was not working and came with us, he would persuade us to walk from the subway station to the beach: "You can get an ice cream cone with the nickel we save by not using the bus."

Our days on the beach and on the Hudson River Day Line steamboats were the highlight of our summer.

Father, a swimming instructor in a public school, worked as a dockhand for the Hudson River Day Line Company in the summer, and frequently received passes for all five of us to travel on the Company's boats.

How excited I was the first time I stepped onto a majestic, white steamboat. I wore my best dress for the occasion.

Reclining on a deck chair, I gazed at the beautiful Hudson River vistas — so unlike the concrete canyons of the city. It was as if I were on a magic carpet ride, discovering a new world I never knew existed.

Within the nine-hour round trip from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, we explored the boat, Father leading the way.

At the Pilot's House at the top of the boat, the pilot/captain, dressed in black uniform with brass buttons on the jacket, stood at the wheel,

In a huge room on the main deck, couples danced to music an orchestra played. I imagined myself as a bride gliding down the marble staircase in the center of the room.

In the cafeteria on the lowest level of the steamer, Father bought ice cream for my sisters and me.

Some passengers disembarked at Bear Mountain Park, West Point and Indian Point.

We usually stayed on board all the way to Poughkeepsie where the steamboat would be tethered to the dock for an hour before it turned around and returned to Manhattan.

Standing at the railing, we watched boys dive from the dock and swim to the boat.

"Ova here, ova here," the boys chanted as they tread water, wanting passengers to throw coins to them.

The boys stored in their mouths the coins they caught, and when their cheeks were bulging, they swam to the dock and dropped the coins into jars. Then they dove into the water and did it all over again.

I threw pennies and nickels Mother gave me to a boy other passengers seemed to be ignoring. When I threw the last coin Mother had in her purse, the boy caught it and held it up above his head, shouting "I got a dime."

When we returned home from a day on a steamboat, I slept the sweet sleep of a content child.

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown.


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