In the 1960s, I was a happy Jersey boy in the small town of Pompton Plains.
My best friends were Mike and Jerry. Mike had two brothers and two sisters. Jerry has two brothers and one sister. There were 10 homes on our dead-end street and nearly 40 kids on the block. When we met on the corner to take the bus to school, all of the girls wore skirts and all of the boys were nicely attired.
And, for what it’s worth, I had a crush on Mike’s older sister, Bridgette. Her hair was long and blonde and when she rode her bike it flew in the wind like the wings of a protecting angel.
Pompton Plains was not a wealthy town, but it was a community where everyone seemed to have enough. There were two pizzerias, a library, a toy store, a bank, a police station, a Chinese restaurant and a traffic light at the intersection of Jackson Avenue and the Newark-Pompton Turnpike where, for five generations, the Jones family ran the local hardware store. There was a lake for swimming and ice skating and another lake for fishing. There was a highway under contemplation along the town’s perimeter and a general store where families could buy their children the uniforms they wore to gym class at the public schools: blue for boys and red for girls.
All around, farms were disappearing as houses sprung forth from the earth, claiming their rightful place among the working class of America. Hardly a day went by when a tree didn’t fall, only to be replaced by a gray cement foundation. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize how lucky I was.
There were open fields and murky ponds and clear mountain streams where colorful trout could swim against the current.
There were quiet places to walk, sit, roam and dream or enjoy the moisture of the planet that enveloped us. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. There were places for a boy to be boy, to find the mud and grime and bugs necessary to become a man. And when the time was right, I would be ready for the girl on the trajectory, not knowing who or when or why, but accepting that all was OK in the universe of my heart.
The world was changing, but I didn’t see it. The highways got bigger. The mountains got smaller. The streams disappeared and the hidden lakes, covered with a gentle mist at sunrise, were sold to the highest bidder with the biggest houses and the boldest red signs that said “private property — no fishing.”
I watched television and ate Oreo cookies. I went to school and sought out suburban adventures.
In the summers, I would go out with my friends in the morning — usually on our bikes — return for lunch, leave again, come back for dinner, and head out one more time, returning at whatever hour was agreed upon by my parents. I was tethered to our home for shelter, food and love, but beyond that I was free to be a young adventurer.
And then I grew up and I went to college. I got a job. I got married. Eventually, I moved to a neighborhood with lots of kids where I knew my kids could play. It was suburban like Pompton Plains, but by the time I arrived all the farms had disappeared. Nonetheless, it was a nice neighborhood in a nice town.
There was, however, one problem: the unyielding roar of the New Jersey Turnpike and another highway that split the town in two. I longed for the mud, the grime, the lakes and streams.
To my children, the rumble of the cars was little more than white noise. To me, it represented everything I wanted to get away from. It was the antithesis of the sounds of my youth, where crickets, frogs and birds filled my ears as I walked among nature.
As soon as I could leave (27 years later), I did. My children were grown, seeking to create their niche in the world, and I was moving on, looking to find a home that would bring me back to my youth.
I have found that home, and today I feel blessed to have a house in the woods, to hear the wind blow through the leaves and to watch the crocus break through the soil in spring. The air smells of renewal and life, and there’s not a hint of carbon monoxide.
I wake up. I walk. I still ride my bike with my friends. And then I come home to her — the girl on the trajectory who has been there all along, filling the universe of my heart.