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A German Christmas
Forest Hill Park Clifton, N.J. as Farmland
By Dick Schoof
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Dick Schoof
All rights reserved.
FOREST HILL PARK
I was in the fifth grade at Lyndhurst Grade School before anyone noticed I couldn't see the blackboard. Mrs. Franks asked me to read something on the board but I couldn't see it. So this caused me to be way behind all of the other kids and I was doing poorly.
As ten year olds, a group of us boys did the typical things that boys do. A favorite was to take apart a pair of steel roller skates and nail them to the bottom of a two by four that was six feet long. One went in the front and the other in the back. We would borrow an orange crate from the rear of the local grocery store and nail it to the front of the board. On the top we would nail two short pieces of board to make handles. This became our skate board and we raced up and down the pavement in front of our houses. Sometimes we would go to the ridge that rose above town and that separated our town from the great Jersey swamp to the East of us. Then we would race down the two block hill toward our houses three blocks away. There was a great ridge running NorthSouth close to the East border of our town with the great swamp starting four blocks further on the East side.
We had the Passaic River in the West. Out in the meadows were the remains of a huge munitions plant that had blown up during WW1. We went out to the remains and picked up gun cotton and one huge shell and took the big mess back to our homes. The gun cotton, full of nitro, was laid out on the top of our furnaces to dry. When it was dry it was stuffed into a tiny bottle and a cotton fuse made with our chemistry set was inserted into the end. We decided to put it in a low knothole in a nearby telephone pole and lit it. Running like the devil we hid in our yard and BOOM! The pole dropped several feet but stood up with the wires sagging. No one ever caught us! The big shell, I believe, was a 55mm about two inches in diameter and a foot long. We always had a fire going in a nearby lot to roast mickeys in. Well one afternoon, I wasn't there, and somebody threw the shell into the fire. Not being in a rifle tube it finally went off like a rocket. The guys told me it hit a chimney as it flew. Nice! Another past time we got into was taking an old radio apart and getting the coil out. We unwound the hairlike wire and stretched it across the road. We would place a sheet of old newspaper over it in each lane and wait for cars to come to a screeching stop. Good kids.
On the other side of the Passaic River was a mill pond that had Carp Goldfish in it and they were caught easily with a long handled net. I made a small pond in my yard and had me a real goldfish pond with pond plants.
Then came the stone fights. A group of boys from across the river would come and challenge us and then the stones would start flying. My buddy Ronnie was always hit and more broken collar bones than any ten guys.
School was a big pain for Ronnie and me. Our school was overcrowded so we had split shifts. Ninth and tenth grades went in the afternoon session. The two of us would go and see the nurse at slightly different times and claim our great sickness. She always let us go home, but cautioned us to be sure to bring her a note from our mothers the next day. So off to the Passaic River we'd go after meeting downtown for our swim in the beautiful water. As we swam a human turd would float by and we would just brush it aside. The river was a sewer for all the places upstream. It was not uncommon to see even more ugly things, we even saw a newborn baby, all blue and swollen, float by. We swam in that cesspool anyway. Then we would get back home before school would normally be out so Mom could give us the excuse we needed for the nurse the next day. What a system ... we never got caught!
Grant Avenue was the side road near our house and it was unpaved dirt. Four blocks East was the huge cork works. I guess they made corks there. Then came the four sets of the old railroad tracks. Alongside the big plant was a telephone pole that had the old fashioned green lamp shade over it with a large clear glass bulb. Our beebee guns made short work of that bulb at night and the flaring broken filament could be seen for blocks. That cookworks caught fire when I was in the eighth grade and burned so long and intensely that the four sets of rails were bent and no trains could pass. Fire hoses were laid from my town to the next just to get water to the engines. They even laid hoses to the Passaic River some fifteen blocks away for water. The faucets in our house were dry for several days. That place burned for over a week with huge billowing plumes of smoke blotting out the sun. What a fire!CHAPTER 2
Mom was the belle of the ball in Jersey City. She had gone through normal school and was teaching students in the city. She came from an affluent family and had many suitors at the doorstep. The one suitor that came from a blue collar family was there all the time and his black hair and good looks were more than the beauty could stand. They were married and eventually moved to Lyndhurst after Dads try at a building business.
Mom was a wonderful mother and gave us kids a wonderful upbringing. She was not a gourmet cook. As it turned out she had a few special dishes that were superb. Her Manhattan clam chowder was excellent and I still use her recipe. The red cabbage in a crock pot couldn't be beat, but most of her dishes were just edible. We managed to grow up on the food we had in front of us. Then came Fridays, and it was fish! There was this old Italian man that came around with his horse and wagon with fish displayed on a bed of ice. He had a huge megaphone and would shout "Fressa Fissha". The fish came into Newark Harbor from the fishing boats that had been out fishing for a day or two and then brought back to the market at night for the vendors to sell. Then the old guy would come from Newark to our town with his horse and wagon. By now the fish that was fessha was several days old. But at least it was on ice all of the time. Pappa said, "we will have fish every Friday, it's brain food!" so now Mom bought fish on Thursday afternoon and we had fish on Friday. Days old fish smells like fish and the cooking odors smell like fish and we kids could not stand it but Pop said "Eat it, it's good for you and will make brains" sooo we ate but didn't like it. I never learned to eat fish and enjoy it until I caught my own and cooked it while the flesh still quivers and there is no fish smell. Yes, truly, fresh fish right out of the water has no smell. Best of all it has a marvelous taste. Yes as good as a fine steak. Mom tried her best and we six kids grew up so I guess it didn't kill us.CHAPTER 3
The musky smell of damp vegetation filled my nostrils as I circled the small lake. Frogs leaped in the water ahead of my approach sending ripples out into the water. A small fish raced away from its nest near the bank causing the water to boil behind it. A beautiful Kingfisher dipped away from a nearby branch as I proceeded around the lake. Ahead of me was a nice beach, sandy and full of slides and other beach things. What a place to spend the summer!
Mom and Dad had decided to take us kids out of the small city we lived in for the summer. Dad found this lovely little lake in the hills of Northern Jersey near Butler and made arrangements to lease a lot on the hill above the water. He arranged to have a builder construct a barn like building on it. There were three rooms on one side. Brother and I had the middle room and the girls had one at the end while Mom and Dad had the opposite one. No ceilings in the rooms. Opposite these rooms was a long room that served as a living and dining room and kitchen. A small cubby hole room became our chemical toilet. There was no running water so big brother and I had the daily duty of carrying water pails from the community pitcher pump to fill up the huge milk holders that Dad had purchased with a spiggot on the bottom. Up and down the trail we would go each morning until those big containers were full for the day. When we moved up there for the first summer the building was up but only bare wood for the roof. Dad bought rolled roofing and shingles nearby and I got my first lesson in putting a roof on. I also found out what a hard job it was for the two of us to carry the honey bucket to the dump station and smelly! We also had a very nice front porch that became the meeting place for all the kids in the area and beyond. Evenings we would all gather there sitting on the rail or any place that took our fancy. One neighbor lady had a guitar and we all would sing the songs of yesteryear. I can still smell the citronella candles burning to keep the pesky insects away. Then it would be off to dreamland. Sometimes at night there would be a thunderstorm and with no ceiling the rain would drum us to sleep. Next morning we'd get up to a nice breakfast and then do our chores. After that it was a race to the beach. Kids from all over the lake would meet at the dock and dive and swim and play water games. One beautiful morning I decided to walk around the lake. Just before I got to the man made dam I spotted a shiny object in the grass. I picked it up and found it to be a fishing lure. Later I discovered it was a red and white spoon with a treble hook. I took it to Mom and she gave me a long hank of string from her ball of string. I tied this to the end of a long maple sapling I cut in the woods. The spoon was attached to the other end. Down at the water I proceeded to whip the lure through the water. Suddenly a fish grabbed the lure and I whipped it out of the water. What a prize it was, a nineteen inch chain pickerel. I took my prize up to the cabin and showed it to Mom. She was surprised and happy since Dad was such a fanatic about having fish on Fridays. So here was a source of fish for Dad. I got out my trusty knife and slit the belly open and cleaned out the viscera. That night when Dad came home from his sales job we had a surprise for him and it wasn't Friday. So Saturday morning he took me down to the local sports store and bought me a beautiful bamboo rod and all of the necessary gear. There was a stipulation to this purchase. I had to pay him back in fish at a penny an inch for the fish I caught. What a deal that turned out to be for me. It meant that I had to go fishing all the time I had free. I don't know how I stood that chore! I would get up early in the morning before the rest of the family stirred and down to the lake I'd run and start fishing. I would cast the metal lures out as far as I could and start retrieving it. The chain pickerel loved the daredevil spoon and would smack it with a vengeance. I would then have the fight of my young life to bring in my prize. I would take the fish to the pump and clean it. Mom would put it on ice in our old fashioned ice box awaiting Dads return that evening for his fish dinner. I suspect Mom and us kids loved this arrangement for no longer did we suffer through the horrible fish of the city.
I soon found out that the lake had a large population of shiners that were about two to three inches long and I could catch them with a tiny barbless hook. I would put a tiny piece of wetted flour dough on the hook and in no time I would fill up a fish bucket. I took the bucket and placed it in the cascading water that spilled over the dam. This trick I found out the hard way as the first bucket of fish died from lack of oxygen. Next morning down at the lake the minnow was impaled through the back and cast out into the water. A red and white bobber was attached about two feet above the shiner. Then I would sit back and wait for the prey to strike. The bobber would suddenly sink down and speed away from me. Then after a short while the bobber would come to the surface and sit. I had learned that after the pickerel ran with the minnow it would stop and turn the fish around in its mouth and then swallow it. So when the bobber came back up I'd wait a few seconds and set the hook and the fun would begin. The fish would streak off in one direction and in another. I'd finally bring my prize and another meal for Dad. He could have it all. As summer progressed I managed to pay off my obligation of a penny an inch of fish to Dad. More about the fishing later.
The park had perhaps forty permanent cabins scattered around the lake. There were many picnic tables that were reserved for regular beach goers. The rest of the picnic area was first come first served. Many of the regular day people had old fashioned ice boxes secured to their tables. The area the park was located in was in the hilly country of Northern New Jersey and in those days quite rugged and unsettled. The road from the highway to camp was a gravel road when we first stayed there. As we approached the camp we passed a farmhouse and many outbuildings. This group of structures belonged to the Wrightner family. Passed our entrance was another big family with all of the same kind of buildings. These belonged to the Struble family. We kids liked to compare both families to the Hatfields and McCoys of past fame. Actually we suspected that they had animosities but mainly got along. There was a good deal of inter marriage.
By the time of my second summer at the park I had discovered that the Strubles had a neat little pond upstream from Forest Hill and it had some nice fish in it. Mom had sent me to their farm to get a pail of fresh milk and I met "old man Struble", the ancient of the clan. "Well sonny, what can I do for you?". We got to talking and the subject of his pond came up by accident and I told him how nice the fishing was in his pond. "So you're the one taking my fish, are you?"
"yes" I blurted out "I should have asked you."
To my surprise he offered me a great out of my delema. "How would you like to be the watchman and keep all those park day people out of my pond?"
What a deal, I could fish there all I wanted and shoo trespassers out "I accept!" I shouted.
We bought eggs from the Wrightner and they let anyone who asked to fish their pond which was below the park. So I had two new places to fish.
Then there was as defunct nudist colony across from the entrance to our place and Wonder Lake had a number of nice size catfish or called bullheads. Dad was partial to catfish and they are quite easily caught with a handline, so Dad had bought eight hand line rigs. The older gals, brother and I went up to Wonder Lake one fine morning with our fish lines and a bucket of worms. We soon had a nice mess of catfish for Dad. Actually we all ate catfish and loved the fresh out of the water fish. As I said before fish out of the water and in the pan has no odor. In later years I would regularly bring home a mess of trout or smallmouth bass and eat them soon after and their would be no fishy smell in the house. Oh yes they taste scrumptious, but on with the story.
Wonder Lake a few years earlier had been a nudist colony. Now it was abandoned and we had the place to ourselves. To catch the catfish we'd bait the hook with a nice juicy worm. The line was coiled at our feet and we would twirl the baited hook and sinker and let go to send the hook flying out into the water. The line was then slipped in a wire with a coil on top and the line was slipped into the coil. The coil had a little bell attached to it so when a fish took the bait the bell would ring and warn that a fish was at the bait. Give a few seconds and yank the line in and bring in your prize. That afternoon when Dad got home he would drive a big nail through the fish head into a tree. Then he'd cut around the head and take pliers and strip the skin down and take the guts out. Mom would flour the meat and fry them up ... mighty good Yumm!
One summer we arrived at camp and there was a slight drizzle. Nothing much but it was wet around camp. The next day the heavens opened up and the rain continued all day and night. The rain drumming on the roof put me to sleep. Well the next day it was raining lightly and did so all day.
Excerpted from A German Christmas by Dick Schoof. Copyright © 2014 Dick Schoof. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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