I was lying in bed this morning thinking of my hometown of Brewster, New York. It seems that every time I do this, my recollection of waking up to sunshine some time in July, only to walk out the front door onto the sidewalk, comes to mind. I can recall doing this over and over and over again. My parents had already gone to work and for some reason, I seemed to have always had the entire house to myself. Which was odd because I have one brother and two sisters who are all somewhat close to me in age. I don’t have any memory of where they were. They weren’t home, which is again odd because this particular memory stems from when I was about 14 years old. They should have been someplace nearby, but they weren’t. At least I don’t think they were.
Anyway, I can’t seem to remember a time when it was raining. It was always sunny when I walked outside. The previous night’s dew was still clinging to the grass. This was the type of situation where I’d find myself returning from a quick stroll through that grass with sneakers that were completely soaked. Freshly cut grass too; I’d mow it at least once per week. There was so much dew on the grass that it would soak my feet straight through my shoes. And of course, I’d have grass clippings stuck to me as well, which made things even worse.
I’m guessing that my memory is set between the hours of 7 and 8 in the AM. The reason I know this is because that’s what time I’d have to ride my bike down to the town beach (Southeast Town Park, today) for swim practice. For some reason, I had joined the swim team and since there was no one to drive me to practice, I’d drive myself. On my bicycle. From door to door, the distance was 2.4 miles. Only one of the roads I took was flat. That was Pumphouse Road. The rest were either wonderful downhills that were great fun on which to ride or long arduous inclines that seemed to have taken forever to climb. I can clearly remember trying to pedal up North Brewster Road or Meridian Drive, hot July sweat dripping from my chin. And what made things worse was that, on the way back, I knew my friends would have already woken up and were planning their days. Most likely without me. As I was crawling my way up Meridian, I’d wonder if Rob had already called Pete, asking him what he was up to. Had Gary already appeared at Rob’s front door, ready to get in some trouble for the day? We all had bicycles, we all had skateboards, and we all had nothing to do. This is a mere sliver of what I can remember of what life was like when I was 14 years old in Brewster, New York.
I sometimes wonder what happened to my hometown. I’ve heard reports from a few folks through the years that it’s, well…changed. I suppose if someone who wasn’t originally from the area moved there today, they’d think it was a fine town, but for someone who lived there from the 70s through to the 90s, I’d say it was better back during those earlier times. And I’m not talking about overwhelming growth or change in character – well, maybe I am. Growth didn’t help Brewster and the character has changed quite a bit. I think that’s what I was pondering this morning. I was wondering how and why everything has changed so much in such a short span of time. I also sometimes wonder if the span of time is as truly short as I make it out to be. I mean, it’s been over four decades. I think of things that have happened over 40 years ago. Strange things that would of course differ today.
When I was super young – probably five or six years old – my mother signed my brother, sister, and me up for swimming lessons at Markel Park in town. We had a fine gentleman named Owen attempt to teach us, along with a few other children, how to swim. I’m not quite sure he succeeded because it wasn’t until years later when my mother and I were at the Lakeview Manor beach on Tonetta Lake that I swam by myself for the very first time. I did need assistance though, so I kept my styrofoam float securely attached around my chest and under my arms as I kicked my way from the ladder on the dock to my mother, who was waiting for me at the shore. I’m not sure who was happier or more proud, my mother or me. It was a big moment in my life. I remember it well. As for Owen’s career as a swim instructor, I’m also uncertain about how long that lasted. Some time after our swim lessons came to an end, the pool closed and the area was filled in with dirt. What was once a pool is now grass. I have difficulty attempting to remember what those days were like now because all I can think of is the lawn that has taken the place of where I once tried to learn how to swim.
After my brother, sister, and I outgrew Markel Park, we transitioned to some swim lessons nearby. There was a park called Wells Pond that offered lessons to older students. While Markel Park primarily targeted the little tykes, Wells Pond targeted those who were in the upper grades of elementary school and perhaps the lower grades of middle school. Wells Pond offered two sides; the sunny side and the shady side. It was big news when we learned on which side we’d be situated. No one wanted the shady side; it was chilly early in the morning and that’s when we swam. The sunny side was much warmer, so if we learned that we’d be stationed there, a celebration ensued.
My family had a lot of fun swimming at Wells Pond. There were many instructors and there was even a spillway upon which we learned how to dive. Thinking back, I’m sure half my school learned how to swim at Wells Pond. We all loved it. Today? Well, it’s gone. Here’s a snippet from an article written in the Southeast, NY Patch in 2013:
“The pond at Wells Park used to be for swimming. Because of changes in the health code the pond no longer met swimming standards (I believe that the DEP was also involved in this decision) thus the pond is to be closed and filled. Our Highway Department is doing the work on this. In another reminder, the spray park at Wells Pond will not be reopened this summer as it cost taxpayers $35,000 to operate and the attendance last year was miniscule.”
Using Google Earth, I can see that the pond has indeed been filled. It’s now grass as well. Brewster appears to have an affinity for grass. At least the tennis courts are still there. Not that I ever played on them, but they were a nice feature.
So much has changed in Brewster. When I was a kid, my mother would bring us to church either on Saturday night or Sunday morning. If it was Sunday morning, she’d take either of two routes back home. If one route, we’d stop at an IGA market called Kobacker’s to pick up some quick groceries or some fresh donuts. I can still smell those donuts. They arrived at the store in huge flat white boxes that you’d flip open to reveal the treasures inside. I’d stand there trying to decide which ones I wanted as the rest of my family shopped. By the time they got back to me, I’d have made my decision and that’s what we’d get. Everyone was so nice at the store too. I can remember the woman who sat behind the cigarette counter near its entrance. She greeted everyone who entered. I don’t know if she was Mrs. Kobacker or not, but she sure was nice.
If we took the other route, we’d stop off at a larger grocery store called Finast and then at the 5&10, which was almost next door. Times were so simple back then. The population was low in Brewster, there were few cars on the road, and those who lived there had done so for a good number of years. It didn’t seem as though there was much transience. Families or young couples who moved to Brewster seemed to have done so for the long haul and it showed in the quality of the town in which we lived. I don’t recall any of my friends moving away in all the years I went to school with them and only a few were added to our class. I can still remember all those who were part of Mrs. Killackey’s second and fourth grade puppet shows. Those classmates of mine attended school with me for the duration. Good years those were. As a side note, I can remember sitting on the windowsill with my friend Russell in fourth grade (this was 1984, mind you). Mrs. Killackey was called away for a few moments, so before she left, she asked the class to begin thinking about how to spell “rustle,” as in, you rustle the leaves. After she did this, I looked at Russell and said, “You got this.” He didn’t and he ended up spelling rustle as russell. And as another side note, Russell and I were in our fifth grade class together as well. One day, we were lying on the carpeted floor working on a project. For some reason, we were fooling around and he ended up stabbing my wrist with his pencil. I can still see a blue dot in my skin from the graphite today. That may explain some of my issues.
There is one institution that has stood the test of time in Brewster, New York though and that’s Danny’s Adult Books. During our travels from St. Lawrence O’Toole church on Prospect Street to Finast on Sunday mornings, we’d pass by a very narrow and almost hidden retail space that had a small sign attached to the wall above its door. It read: Danny’s Adult Books. I noticed this place every single time we passed it because it was directly across from an intersection at which we’d have to stop (the one just past Wells Pond on Oak Street that had J.J. Couighlin Septic Tank Service painted on the concrete wall – check out the phone number for you old timers: BR9-2673). As a kid, I always wondered what was inside this tiny store and now as an adult, I can only imagine. I just looked up their Facebook page and it appears to still be open. It’s been over 40 years, so while Markel Park can’t seem to keep a swimming pool open and Wells Pond has had their lake filled in, Danny’s Adult Books remains strong.
I’m not even sure of what else I can write about my home town. I left when I was in my very early 20s and even before I had gone, our beloved beach had closed due to property taxes owed to the town. The town eventually took the land over and now the building is used as some sort of gathering space. Finast is closed and the building has been split up into smaller retail spaces. The 5&10 is long gone and is now a Levine Automotive. I’m not sure there are too many children who are visiting a pizza place on Sunday mornings after church with their mothers, only to hustle down a staircase in between two buildings to visit an auto parts store. We’d do just that after my mother would venture into Finast. My brother, sister, and I would climb down those stairs and run into the 5&10 to check out the candy and toys. And candy and toys there were. Tons of them. Not that we’d buy anything because we weren’t allowed to, but it was nice to know that stuff was there. Today, perhaps we’d drool over an alternator.
Back when I grew up in Brewster, New York, our town had no stoplights. Not one. We had stop signs instead. During high school, I can remember hearing about one of my friends getting into a big car accident just past one of those stop signs. Totally his fault. I believe he ran it. Anyway, a few weeks later came our first stop light and they haven’t stopped coming since. Today, they’re all over the place. The population has likely doubled or tripled during the years after I left and new shopping plazas have been added. Fields and woods have been built upon and have been mowed down for various reasons. Traffic has increased substantially and new box stores, if not built already, have been planned. My friends tell me that school and property taxes have soared and that no one seems to know each other anymore. Not even neighbors. Halloween used to be an event that was eagerly anticipated every year. In my neighborhood alone, we’d have hundreds upon hundreds of kids and adults either trick-or-treating or causing chaos. Today? No one. Not a soul. About 15 years ago, I got a call from one of my friends who still lives there telling me that it was all over. That he had just walked down the street to see if anyone was doing anything on the night of Halloween and all he saw was three young males sitting at the corner. When he inquired about their plans, they lackadaisically informed him that they had no plans. What a far cry from the preceding era.
In the 70s, Brewster High School allowed teachers to smoke cigarettes in the classrooms. Regular hazing took place during the first few days of every school year. Nothing serious, just pencil races using your nose to push the pencil along or some innocent singing atop a lunchroom table. Back in those days, seniors in high school had long hair and moustaches. They wore jackets with patches of their favorite heavy metal bands sewn to the backs of those jackets. Muscle cars filled the parking lots. In the 80s, we had big bonfires right before our homecoming football games. The air would be chilly, so standing next to that flame was not only a lot of fun, but warm as well. We’d have pep rallies instead of our last class on the day of that football game and spirits were exceedingly high. Students loved the good times and the rush they felt. Music was great in the 80s and so were the friendships we had. It was rich. So many of my memories of growing up in Brewster are rich and full. I enjoyed the looseness of it all. No one seemed to be overbearing. I was allowed to walk to school by myself whenever I wanted to, as long as I promised to show up. I’d meet my friends and we’d walk down the hall together. We had great times. First period, second period, going to my locker to swap out a few books, chatting with some friends in the hallway, going to band practice – all very good times.
I don’t know – I think I’m just reminiscing now. I can go on and on and I completely recognize that nothing will ever again be the way it was back then. Being the nostalgic person I am though, I think I have a tough time with that on occasion. I talk to Laura about this a lot and we share so many stories. Some of my favorites include how I used to sleep in my bedroom every night with my radio on. During those times, I was introduced to so many excellent songs for the very first time. We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel and Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins. Radio was pretty good back then. Growing up in Brewster afforded us the benefit of having access to New York City radio stations, which were, in my humble opinion, the best in the nation. Nobody beat WPLJ, Z100, Hot 97, and even earlier than that, Hot 103. I can even remember back in 5th grade, begging classmates for the lyrics to Beat It by Michael Jackson and then Eat It by Weird Al. Someone had made photocopies of them and I wanted the piece of paper badly. Eventually, I got it and I held onto those lyrics for dear life. I wonder where they are today.
Well, I suppose I’ve done enough remembering or whatever you want to call it for today. I do wonder if others go through this as well. Do you think about days gone by? Do you think they were better or worse than these days today? I’d love to read your opinions.