BELOW THE WATER LINE
There was a lady down at the bottom
of Avenel, along Rahway Avenue. She
lived in a leftover mansion or big house
anyway, alone. Her husband had been
killed there in a robbery, or killed himself,
or something. The Galida Mansion, that's
what we called it, no matter the real name.
Pronounced as 'Glider'. Meaningless at that
point. I had a friend there, just up the hill
from over where they later built the Post
Office - Billy Bernath. Early on, I used
to visit with him, and it was all new and
strange territory for sure. There were still
some patches of woods and abandoned
stuff. Only later it was when that old lady
finally sold off what was left and it was
turned into other houses, newly built, and
then - after they'd torn the old place down,
and I guess after she was dead too - a bunch
of condominiums were put in there. The really
dopey-looking kind - cheap and tacky, the
kind wise-ass real estate people now go
around selling, after first they put them up.
I'd imagine, just as well, that the government
took some land from her for the new Post
Office too. Eminent domain or whatever.
She was a little, plain lady, a bit murky in
the head, always selling things out on the
lawn. Maybe she was a bit daffy too. Don't
know. To us, back then, she was just local
color, a sort of neighborhood padding, just
something you'd see and expect. It was like
that yet into the mid-sixties; people weren't
all nervous about things all the time like now.
Having to worry these imaginary worries,
wearing a seat belt at ten miles an hour,
riding a bicycle with a helmet, like a retard.
If something was fuzzy or funny or fearsome
or strange, no matter - we all just went along
with it, and lived life around it.
It was Billy who one day taught me to listen
to music, well sort of. We were in the back seat
of his father's car, going to Raritan Arsenal, for
some Boy Scout stuff, something or other, and
his father had the radio on. It was a symphony
of some sort - I don't know why, or what. But
it was pretty quiet, we were being driven along.
It was really only a few miles, like 5 or 6, but
remember when you're young everything is a
huge undertaking - so it felt like we were
riding for two hours. It's all perspective.
Anyway, Billy turns and says - 'Listen to
that music. Isn't it great how they get all those
different instruments to play at once and all
together, in a way that makes good sound.'
That's not like a courtroom-exact quote, but
it's pretty much what he said. I sort of got
stopped short with that - I'd really never
listened before like that, and I realized, yeah,
he was right, and I guess it was rather cool.
All that effort as one, those breaks and ups
and downs. Certainly was unknown to me.
Serious music, to us, had been novelty tunes,
like that Australian radio hit 'Does Your
Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?', which
about that time everyone was hearing twenty
times a day - heavy the lyrics too : 'Does
your chewing gum lose its flavor on the
bedpost over night? When your mother
says 'don't chew it' do you swallow it
in spite?' Or maybe it was, 'in fright'.
Who knows. There was another one too,
something about Purple People Eaters.
Yes, this was all real - Billy's comment
was way off in another direction, a real
serious aside, another universe of finer
taste. I took to it. But I haven't seen nor
heard of this Billy guy in 50 solid years.
Probably that was the last time; in his
father's '57 Ford. I walk past both the
site of the old mansion, and Billy's house
too, quite often. Nothing smiling back
except maybe ghosts.
I guess I should mention too, another
time that Billy and I were doing a campover
at that same Arsenel, with the Boy Scouts.
It's all Raritan Center now, all built up crap
with warehouses and roads and lots of little
corporate offices and stuff. Back then it was
mostly fresh fields, windblown, tall grasses,
lots of barracks like buildings - all military
stuff. Quonset huts and muddy holes. Anyway,
Billy and I were out in the fields, fooling
around, and he started throwing matches.
As would happen to Avenel boys, the matches
took up, the grasses started flaming, and
before we knew it we'd gotten a full-bore
meadow fire on our hands, wind-blown
and spreading. Knowing we were in
trouble on this one, we high-tailed it back
somewhere, got the word out that there
was a meadow-grass fire, and that was
the end of that weekend. The camp-over
was shut down, cancelled and suspended,
and everyone had to leave. Billy could
have for sure gotten a Merit Badge in
fire-starting for that prank.
Over by me - but, I swear, having nothing
to do with any of us - there would be two
or three grass fires a year along the tracks,
on either side, out behind the houses on
my side. The banks there were higher than
the tracks - which had been dug out, down
into a little trench for right-of-way, and the
tall grasses and stuff would take over, by
the mid-season of every growth year. Every
so often there just be a flame up - blamed
on the train, sparks or something, or a
cigarette being heaved out an open window
along the route, as the train ran by. (You
could still do that then, and had windows
that opened. I told you what sort of world it
was). The firemen would arrive, one or two
trucks in a panic, and - of course - that
became our entertainment of the afternoon,
or evening, whatever. Things were so much
slower, different; I can't say 'better' because
really 'better' doesn't exist. It's all a state of
flux, and the moment is the moment that's yours,
wherein you live - you accept it, take it, greet
it wholesomely and cheerfully, and that's that.
In today's world, everybody's all a'panic before
anything even goes - eyes a'blaze, instead of
situations a'blaze. It's a farcical farce, and it's
mainly because people can make money off of
it now - it's all legislated, rules and regulations.
The difference between places in time is really
stark. I can attest. One of those 'legislated' bogus
deals just cost me 70 bucks, for absolutely
nothing. It was all fake, and over as soon as
I paid, without even the inspection due
Before they'd paved the street of Inman Avenue,
I've said before, it was just a gravel road, hard-
surfaced, but covered with small gravel, gray
stones that the town laid down. They'd come
by occasionally, also, and spray some tar from
a spray-truck over it, but that didn't last either.
In a few week's time, the cars rolling by would
have all the little pebbles smushed over to the
curbs and the road would be laid out pretty bare
again. It was cool - bicycle travel differed,
skinned knees and shins rose and fell in
incidence. I'd guess too it's the sort of stuff
people wouldn't tolerate, for sure, today -
they'd be demanding perfect smoothness
in a heavily paved roadway. So dumb, how
expectations of things have changed.
Everything's altered, money seems like
it's everywhere now, even the people who
don't 'have' money get access to it. Banks
and card companies seem just dying to give
it away. No one ever explained any of that
to us. The world was 'if you have a nickel,
that's what you have. If not, not.'
I mentioned Raritan Arsenel, home of our
conflagration. It's about 5 or 6 miles from
Avenel, convenient to get too, there are big
roads everywhere ringing it, truck access, off
and on ramps, turnpikes, parkways, etc. Back
until just after WWII, it had been a powder keg,
a veritable bomb-in-place. It was an ammunition
dump, and factory, for the tons of wartime ammo
needed - betting shipped out, stored, held. Buried.
The place was teeming with activity. When we
were there, I guess just after de-commissioning
and its opening for Boy Scout camp-outs and
stuff, those dirt roads and lanes and meadows
were posted with signs everywhere - Danger!
this and that - buried armaments, live ammo,
underground bunkers, rail-tracks for ammunition
trains, stacks of gigantic bullets and torpedoes and
stuff. You pretty much weren't supposed to walk
anywhere except where they said it was OK. What's
left of the place now is an EPA hangout, the last,
undeveloped part, underway with a massive EPA
Superfund land-clearing cleanup. It's all fenced
and toxic. In the 1990's I knew a girl who worked
inside there, for the EPA project. It was amazing;
she weighed about 280 pounds, believe me she
was an airborne-balloon sized person, and she
thought nothing, she said, about being amidst
the toxins and weird chemicals and puddles
left about that place. She was from Toms
River or Freehold, somewhere like that; rode
a motorcycle there each day, to work, in
good weather. It was a very cool sight to
see her, astride her iron horse, tooling in
to one of New Jersey's grandest toxic waste
sites everyday. There was a movie back then,
called 'Toxic Avengers'. I always thought of her
whenever I watched it (I had a friend, dead-now,
who so loved that film that he watched it, I
swear, four times a week. A few of them with
me, 'pretending' to be watching it too). Superfund
site. Toxic Waster. Toxic Avenger. Avenel.
Edison. New Jersey. Whatever.