Friday, August 29, 2008
When my best friend turned 55 last June, and I could tell she was getting tired of all the “hitting the speed limit” comments, I came up with a daring plan: a weekend trip back to the town where we grew up together – Ridgewood, New Jersey. I say “daring” because the trip could have gone either way; it could have ended up being a fond nostalgic idyll or a sour reminder of just how far in the distant past lay our shared childhood. It was a gamble, but it paid off.
We met at the hotel and set off on a tour of the hometown, with our final destination to be The Glen Rock Inn, a restaurant in a neighboring town that had been a favorite of our parents. Many a Friday night we had sat at the Inn, the youngest people there as our parents chatted with friends at other tables. We were a bit surprised to see it still existed, and even more surprised to realize we were still the youngest ones there. As we looked from table to table into the elderly eyes of our fellow diners, the years started to slip away, and we once again felt like the youngsters we had been the last time we ate there.
As the evening faded, we drove around Ridgewood, revisiting our favorite haunts. Our grammar school was still standing, although now it housed condominiums instead of uniformed children. Just down the street, at the church where I was married with my girl friend as my maid-of-honor, a wedding party spilled down the broad stone front steps and posed for photos, while we parked
and watched (and, I’ll be honest, critiqued) the festivity. Our former homes still stood and, while one had lost its rose bushes and the other had had something truly strange done to its driveway, it was as if we had just left them to head out on a summer evening drive. We finally settled in the parking lot overlooking Graydon Pool, home to most of our summer exploits as teenagers. If there could be reckoned a heart to Ridgewood, at least as far as summer-struck teens were concerned, Graydon Pool was it. A man-made lake, surrounded by broad lawns and a sandy beach, Graydon had been one man’s gift to the town, a place where we swam as kids, taught swimming lessons as teenagers, and skated every winter. As we sat in the golden light of a June evening and watched the families cross the bridge to the parking lot, I lost track of time. Weren’t these the same kids I taught to swim? They carried themselves the same – the little boys barefoot and dragging their towels behind them like dilapidated super capes, the little girls prim in their flipflops and wearing their towels like a princess’ mantle. What year was this?
And then it hit us – Brigadoon. Remember the musical about the town that appears in the Scottish Highlands for one day every 100 years, and then vanishes into the mist for another century? Could we be starring in an updated, made-for-American-audiences version? How could so little have changed?
This feeling continued to pursue us the next day, when we sat in a park where we used to meet for lunch. As we talked, a handful of young boys, perhaps aged seven or eight, came over the hill, lugging wiffle bats. They were soon joined by a few more boys carrying wiffle balls, at which point a peewee baseball game began. Here’s what was remarkable – there were no parents or nannies in sight, just a group of neighborhood kids enjoying a pick-up game. Does that happen in this century? I thought that kind of activity went the way of avocado-colored appliances. And yet, the whole day continued in this manner: nothing seemed to have changed in the 33 years since we left Ridgewood. The Warner Theatre on Ridgewood Avenue had not been converted to a Blockbuster Video or a CVS; it actually still showed movies. Across the street, the luncheon counter where we always ate after seeing a movie was not only still in business, but the same family owned it. Of course the town had changed with the times, but all of our hang-outs were still there and more or less unchanged. See what I mean? We had stepped back into our own personal Brigadoon, and my girl friend was loving it.
Although we were really getting into this Brigadoon mindset, I have to admit that Saturday evening’s events surprised me. Do you remember that feeling, driving around with your friends on a summer night, when anything seemed possible and everything was just the tiniest bit strange? It was as if the summer dark had the ability to change the commonplace into the mysterious. All of that came back to us as we sat in our car talking the night away as the fireflies came out. Granted we were parked next to an old stone church, facing its graveyard, but it was a biking destination for us oh-so-many summers ago, so it was really just another nostalgic site – that is, until a car pulled up next to us and a teenaged boy climbed out, pulled on his backpack, switched on his flashlight and, without even a curious glance in our direction, headed into the cemetery. Just like those heroines of our girlhood, Nancy Drew and her cautious friend George, I whispered, “Cool. Let’s see what happens,” at the same time my girl friend hissed, “Roll up the windows and lock the doors!” We compromised, and we sat there, windows open to catch any sound but with the doors securely locked, as the minutes ticked by. The flashlight beam allowed us to follow his movements, until it stopped and shot its light into the trees for a long time. “He’s put the flashlight down,” I reasoned, to which she added, “He’s probably dead.” For someone who can’t stand watching horror movies, my friend could have a great career writing them. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and then nothing, not even the glow of the flashlight. We waited silently, trying to work out in our minds what we had just witnessed, and then the flashlight was on and on the move again, this time moving towards us. The young man calmly sauntered to his car, not one demon in pursuit, and drove off, never once looking in our direction. “He certainly didn’t act guilty,” my friend observed. “He certainly didn’t act dead, either,” I pointed out.
We spent hours trying to figure out that mystery, and of course had to return to the cemetery the next day to investigate by daylight. By now we had hypothesized that the bright flash we saw must have come from a camera, but just what could he have been taking a photo of, long past dark in a rural graveyard? By following what we recalled of the path of the traveling flashlight, we found (what else?) a freshly-dug grave. So what was he, a ghost hunter? A kid on a dare? Do we care? It was a return to the mysteries of our teen summers, just the thing to assure two 55-year-olds that life still holds possibility and that, contrary to what Thomas Wolfe may say, you can go home again.∆
The years started to slip away, and we once again felt like the youngsters we had been the last time we ate there.
We had stepped back into our own personal Brigadoon, and my girl friend was loving it.
It was a return to the mysteries of our teen summers.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito