Snakes in the Grass

Northern Black Racer –I must have picked up some juveniles.

**See below today’s story for updates on some recent posts, re two-legged snakes.**

As a child I was pretty well behaved. But during summer vacation, when we moved to the Catskills to escape New York’s scorching streets, I managed to find trouble. I caught snakes, experimented on an unfortunate frog, hexed an older girl, and led a younger one astray.

Two Months in the Country

Starting when I was in elementary school, my parents would rent a place for the summer. Toward the end of May they’d drive over 100 miles north to the Catskill Mountains, visit a few bungalow colonies, and pick one from among those within our price range and within a short walk from a swimming hole.

School let out at the end of June. Right after dinner on that last day and late into the night, Mom packed boxes of dishes, flatware, cooking utensils, clothing, and linens. We had to supply all these ourselves. First thing in the morning she and Dad packed the old sedan. Boxes went in the trunk—so many of them that its lid wouldn’t close and had to be tied down with clothesline. Pillows were stacked on the back seats, and my little sister Jeannette and Cousin Ira sat on them. Dad drove, with Mom beside him and me next to her. I always got the front window seat, partly because I was the oldest, and partly because I was extremely susceptible to motion sickness.

In those days it took 5-6 hours to reach our destination. Halfway through, about 52 miles from Brooklyn, we stopped for lunch at the Red Apple Rest, a cafeteria-style eatery patronized by thousands of families heading to the Catskills. I always ordered a hot dog. Half an hour later Dad would have to pull over so I could throw up.

We arrived at our bungalow late in the afternoon. It was always pretty much the same: stove, refrigerator, table, and chairs in the kitchen; in the bedroom, iron bed frames with box springs and mattresses. Mom and Dad hauled in the boxes, put the kitchenware in the cabinets, and put sheets on the beds.

On Sunday evening Dad went home. For the rest of the summer, he would come up for weekends and his two-week vacation. His visits were eagerly anticipated, as he’d show up with toys and comic books, drive us to the nearest town for grocery shopping and ice cream, and hold us on the surface of the water while we learned to swim.

Mom’s jobs didn’t vary much during the summer: fix meals, wash clothes, clean up, and try to enforce some minimal rules of behavior. She never got as much appreciation as Dad.

Why the Catskills?

Toward the end of the 19th Century, Jewish farmers purchased land there and built summer resorts. By the 1950s around half a million New Yorkers, mostly Jews, had taken to spending the sweltering months in what came to be known as the “Borscht Belt.” We were welcome there—but not in places where anti-Semitism prevailed, that is, most of the U.S.

Although air conditioning had become widely available, it was still beyond the means of the average worker. In 1952 a 5,500 BTU unit (one that could cool a 10×10 bedroom) cost $350. We would have needed three of them to ameliorate summers in our tiny ground floor apartment, and they’d be useless the rest of the year. Just one would likely have blown the old 15 amp fuses. But even if the fuse held, our electricity bill would blast through the ceiling and the roof as well. Not much of a bargain, given my father’s take-home of $70 per week.

The bungalows we rented cost $200 for the entire summer. As a civil servant, Dad could take out a loan at 3% and pay it off over the cooler months, just in time to re-apply the following May. For that $200 we had access to farm-fresh food, a swimming hole, and meadows to play on instead of concrete and asphalt. And clean air! In the evenings we sat out on the lawn and watched glorious sunsets. At night we gazed at the uncountable stars, the Milky Way… In those days coal furnaces heated the city and its sky always had a grey tinge. In New York I never saw the stars outside the Hayden Planetarium, or a colorful sunset except in paintings at the museum, or even a rainbow.

Cows, Snakes, and Voodoo Dolls

I don’t remember all the dinky hamlets we stayed at. Ellenville was one—called “Socconessing” by its original inhabitants. The word apparently means “a muddy place where the water comes out,” and its residents included thick swarms of mosquitoes. In my mind’s eye I can still see our neighbors in the next bungalow, their legs decorated with sores where they’d scratched themselves bloody. Fireflies also loved the place. Ignorant of their needs, I put some in a jar without holes in the lid for oxygen. They were dead by morning.

We never went back to Ellenville. Another of the colonies was down the road from a berry farm. When the blueberries ripened, Mom grabbed some pots and a couple of jugs of water and we went picking. We also collected apples. These fruits were canned and used for pies back in the city.

The summers when I was 10 and 11, we rented one of the bungalows at Mayberg’s Colony in Harris, NY. I haven’t found midcentury census data for Harris, but most recently it had a population of 69. The only amenities were a post office and a convenience store.

Mayberg’s was adjacent to a small dairy farm. Mom used to carry a couple of bottles over to the barn every morning at milking time, and the owner would fill them directly from a cow’s teat. The milk wasn’t pasteurized but the cows were tuberculin tested. It wasn’t homogenized either, so Mom would pour off half the cream, saving it for coffee, and then shake up the bottle whenever a child wanted a drink.

Most days the kids in the colony played outside, lightly supervised if at all—unless we were going swimming. Favorite games were ringolevio (if you’re not from New York, it’s a form of tag) and a vicious card game called knucks. The winners got to whack the loser on the knuckles with the deck of cards.

I often wandered off by myself. Fascinated by the cows, I’d duck through the barbed wire fence and enter their pasture to observe them, from a safe distance. Sometimes I drew them. The younger kids found cow patties more intriguing than bovine anatomy, and used sticks to fling bits of dung at each other.

I’d always been interested in science, even as a small child. I’d read somewhere that part of scientific training involved dissecting a frog, so I caught a hapless amphibian and cut it open. Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything—except to regret it, and the dead fireflies, to this day.

Perhaps because the environment was safer for their children, our mothers seemed more relaxed in the country. Occasionally they sat together and knitted garments for winter. Mom tried teaching me to knit but I hated it, along with sewing, doing dishes, mopping, and most of the other chores considered women’s work.

Sometimes a foursome got together for mah jongg. One of those afternoons, I was aimlessly wandering in the thick grass at the edge of the lawn when I spotted a couple of black snakes. I knew that these weren’t poisonous, so I grabbed them by their necks and headed toward the women. “Ma! Look what I got!”

Three women ran off as fast as they could, leaving my mother to deal with me. “Throw those things away!” she shouted, her face red with what must have been a mixture of anger and fear.

I complied, though just a little regretful at not being able keep these new pets. Mostly, however, I felt tremendously proud. I’d scared away grownups who didn’t know the difference between the non-venomous black snakes and rattlers or copperheads.

Another episode of childhood arrogance: Anita, the 14-year-old daughter of the colony’s owners, was nasty to the younger kids. I made a plasticine voodoo doll to represent her and stuck a pin in it. Once she heard about it, she grew very distressed and developed a headache. One of the other adults, probably Anita’s mother, told my mother, who ordered me to squish the doll. When I complied, the headache went away. Again I was filled with pride. I didn’t believe in voodoo or any kind of magic, but this stupid girl—three years older than me—did!

That same year I became friends with nine-year-old Roberta. I’d heard there was a waterfall at the end of a nearby dirt road, and decided that we should go see it. Roberta was quite willing to follow my lead. The road, which hadn’t been used in many seasons, had potholes the size of basketballs. We passed a decaying farmhouse, which we’d been told was haunted. We peeked into the cracked windows but didn’t try to go in. Four miles later we came to a small waterfall. At the end of a fairly dry summer the flow was so diminished that we could hear a car approaching behind us.

“You two get in!” Dad yelled. He was pretty upset. “I almost busted an axle going down this road.” He never let on who told him where we were going, or how scared he was for our safety.

The next expedition I instigated was to Monticello, the big town in the area. In 1955 it had around 4700 residents. Monticello boasted a supermarket and stores that sold various necessities to summer people, such as bathing suits and the colorful swim tubes that fit around a child’s waist. Of most interest to us, it had ice cream.

Roberta and I hiked the 6.5 miles to Monticello and went directly to the ice cream parlor. Afterward, too tired to walk home, we stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out. A nice guy drove us all the way back to the bungalows. Two little girls, an 11-year-old and a 9-year old, hitchhiking… Our parents were not pleased. I suppose they clamped down, as I don’t remember any further such adventures.

That was our last summer in the bungalow colonies. The next year they sent us to sleep-away camp.

*          *          *

1) Update on the proposed Kaiser settlement: this week I spoke to a union member, who told me that the agreement would provide 3%-4% raises. The union had asked for only 4%—at a time when real inflation in the U.S. during the past year, according to economist Paul Krugman, was 7.3%. Kaiser also made a side deal with the nurses, giving them an additional $2.50/hr. This drives a wedge between nurses and the other employees covered by the Alliance of Healthcare Workers, including pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, and physician assistants. But since nurses constitute 75-80% of the membership, the agreement is expected to pass. Although management didn’t succeed in imposing a two-tier wage system, they did find another way to divide the workers.

2) Update on my post of 11/26 about the land grabs worldwide: Roberto Camp sent me an article from The Guardian reporting over 1,000,000 evictions in Spain since the crash of 2008, and over 11,000 evictions of individuals and families during the first three months of this year. There have also been a series of eviction-related suicides. Spain doesn’t even top the list, however. The European countries with the highest eviction rates were Luxembourg, the UK, Belgium and France, with Spain in 11th place.

2 Responses to Snakes in the Grass

  1. Esther M Newton December 5, 2021 at 8:50 am #

    Holly and I had a small place a few miles outside Monticello. We of course were very familiar with the ultra orthodox bungalows that had the same pattern, women and children during the week and husbands on the weekends. But the episode I remember most vividly was the college summer that I was a counselor at a zionist summer camp. The kids were mostly all reform, from affluent Boston suburbs. The camp took a bus trip to one of the bungalow colonies and the kids were aghast. Most of them had never even imagined that Jews lived like or looked like those ultra orthodox folks. For that matter, growing up in Manhattan, I had never seen anything like those colonies.

  2. Martha Shelley December 5, 2021 at 10:21 am #

    The farm where we picked blueberries was owned by the ultra orthodox. The bungalow colonies we stayed in were not orthodox at all–I think a good portion of the residents had been socialists during the Depression. But I was aware of the Hasidim from an early age, as plenty of them lived in Brooklyn (though not in the Crown Heights neighborhood where I grew up).

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