Planet Neighborhood

Planet Neighborhood

This story is in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above.

My neighborhood growing up was a little like a solar system, the neighbors’ houses being the planets revolving around our house. Except the planets didn’t move and were fixed in the neighborhood firmament. Other than that, though, it was kind of like a solar system, if you can imagine that.

Next door and just up the hill from us were the Allens. Helen and Don. Their kid had already gone off on his own, so they lived by themselves, and Don was the town clerk, which as I mentioned before I saw as a very important position. He wasn’t around as much as Helen since he had to work at the town hall every day, so mostly it was Mrs. Allen that I would see and hang out with. She always seemed happy to see me and had little snacks and cold drinks to ply me with. Since their basement door opened directly opposite our screened side porch, it wasn’t far to go, and it seemed Mrs. Allen was always coming through that door to hang acres of clothes and sheets outside on the line in the backyard to dry.

Next door on the other side and just down the hill from us were the Archibalds. They had a daughter, Ginny, which I think was short for Virginia, but she was grown and married and lived in Clearwater, Florida. Every now and then Ginny and her husband would visit her parents, and I got to be friends with their son, Chip, who was my age. We’d hang out and play together, and then he’d go back with his parents to Clearwater, which sounded like a very exotic place to me. I’d actually write him real letters asking him when he was coming back, and I’d put them in real envelopes with a stamp and mail them off to him in Florida. I don’t remember ever getting a letter from him, though, and since then I’ve often wondered whatever happened to him.

Just below the Archibalds, down where the street leveled off a bit for the intersection with Livingston Avenue before dropping back into a descent that ran from there down to the Manor Park and River Road at the bottom of the hill, were the Fergusons. They were an older couple and were always very nice to me, and going that far to kibitz with them on a Saturday morning was something of an adventure.

Going up the hill, the half-block up toward where our street dead-ended at the very top of the hill, I really didn’t know those people. There were a few houses up there, all on our side of the street, and all with concrete steps you had to go up to get to the front door. But I never went up the steps, I don’t think I did even on Hallowe’en, so I didn’t know those people and their houses were unexplored planets in the neighborhood solar system. See, even in those days, in the 1950s, before the Internet and even pretty much before air conditioning, though not before television, not everyone knew one another.

I had friends around the neighborhood, kid friends, too. Richard, who lived down near the bottom of the hill, and Ozzie, who lived on Livingston, and a couple of girl friends – well, mostly one, Tina, but we’ll get to her later – and Richard and Ozzie and I would play together, like the Three Musketeers. I think we might even have called ourselves that. But besides my kid friends, I often liked to go over next door to the Archibalds and hang out with them, and sometimes to the Fergusons or the Allens, and I guess they’d give me things to drink and eat and listen to my various stories about what was going on back at my house, and I felt very important when I visited the neighbors.

My parents hated this, they really did, and they were always lecturing me about not spreading the family secrets, about things that happened in our house staying in our house. I didn’t really know what the family secrets were, or why they were so important, or why it mattered what the neighbors thought, but when these family secrets came up they mostly had to do with my sister. At least the most interesting ones did, anyway. And, well, you had to have something to talk about, is how I saw it, and talking about her various doings seemed about as good a thing to talk about as anything.

I guess I was quite the gadabout, and knowing human nature I’m sure now that the neighbors loved to get as much gossipy dirt as they could get, even if it meant putting up with some kid next door and plying him with lemonade and cookies. But that’s all it took to get me to sing like a canary, and it just about drove my parents nuts.

Now there was one thing I did that went a bit further than just the gossip stuff, and I actually had to go back around the neighborhood and issue a retraction to all the neighbors I had told this to. It was something that came to me early one summer morning when I was still in bed, which was that we were going to go to Miami Beach on vacation, and we were going to fly there this time, instead of all the times when we’d drive down. It was summer vacation and I had some extra time on my hands, and that was probably a big part of the reason I woke up with this idea, and it just sort of took on a life of its own.

As a kid I had a thing for airplanes, still do, even though at the time I had never flown in one and it was kind of a big deal back then to go somewhere by air. The Wright Brothers were personal heroes of mine, and I used to draw pictures of airliners, DC-6s, DC-7s, Constellations, Electras, and other planes of the era, realistic with the markings and symbols of various airlines, most of which have since ceased to exist. Even better, I loved going with my dad to Newark Airport, where he’d take me sometimes to the observation deck and we’d watch planes taking off and landing for hours.

As I recall, in those letters I’d write to Chip in Clearwater I asked when he was going to come back so we could build this airplane we had talked about building, out of wood. I had airplanes on my mind all the time, and my fixation became such that for many years, once I abandoned the idea of becoming a cowboy, I decided that I would become an airline pilot when I got older. That idea didn’t fit with the career plans my parents had for me, whatever they were, and they did their best to ridicule my plans, mockingly intoning, “Yeah, you’ll be a pilot. Pile it over here. Pile it over there.” They thought they were very clever saying that, but to me it was very insulting.

Anyway, this particular Saturday morning, I think I was 9, I woke up convinced this was a excellent idea, flying down to Miami Beach for vacation, and I couldn’t wait to share it with my parents. So I jumped out of bed and padded into their bedroom, where they were still waking up, and I jumped on their bed and harangued them with this idea of mine for like forever. They were pretty good at humoring what they saw as my more outlandish ideas, like my wanting to be an airline pilot, and after awhile I guess I just wore them down, and at some point their protestations how this vacation plan of mine wasn’t possible turned into a kind of acquiescence. That’s when they said something along the lines of, “Sure, we’ll fly down to Miami Beach. Go pack your bags and get ready.”

Well, that was all I needed. As far as I was concerned they had gotten on-board with my plan, and it was time to announce it to the neighbors. I went around later that bright, sunny, early summer morning telling everyone I could find that we were going to Miami Beach, and we were going to fly down. It was going to be my first airplane flight, and boy was I excited.

Well, somehow word got back to my parents that I was spreading this rumor around the neighborhood – I was pretty convincing in telling the story, and I think someone spoke with my parents to congratulate them on their vacation plans – and then the reality came down. They made it more than abundantly clear to me that, no, we were not flying to Miami Beach, and I needed to go tell everyone that I had told about this plan that it wasn’t true, that we were not flying to Miami Beach. What a let down, I’ll tell you that.

Well, in the end, we did wind up going to Miami Beach, but we drove down again, the usual three-day trip each way in the car as it was at that time. Eventually, I did get my first airplane flight, flying from JFK to Miami on the old National Airlines, on a jet no less, but it wasn’t until I was 11 that I got that thrill. I never did become an airplane pilot, but neither did I pile it over here or pile it over there.

Historic postcard of Eastern Airlines Super-C Constellation over Miami Beach, State of Florida Archives

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