Today’s upcoming first snow of winter on November 13 brought to mind dozens of my childhood adventures with snow. Most of all, today reminded me of my family’s sojourn on a chicken farm in Richland, NJ between 1941 and 1947.
Chapter One: America was not a time of content for my parents. They missed the wide open spaces of their vacation home in Klosterneuburg near Vienna, with its acres of orchards, lush fields, and clean air.
They missed having the closest neighbors hundreds of feet from their dwelling. They missed swimming in the Danube and its mud/sand beaches. They missed riding their bicycles along unpaved country roads – with me in a rumble seat on mom’s bicycle.
Although we escaped the crowded and noisy living spaces of Manhattan by moving to Astoria, New York City, my parents wanted to live in the “wide open spaces of this great country.”
Unfortunately, they missed the courage to go to California or the Pacific Northwest or Vermont to join various relatives and close friends who had felt likewise. The Southeast didn’t appeal to them because of the prejudice against Jews, the control of the KKK, and an insular outlook which is still alive and well.
How ironic life often turns out to be!
In 1941, they made an appointment with the Hebrew International Settlement Agency (HIAS) as suggested by my Dad’s first cousin, Leo.
Leo had developed the same feelings as they did, and wished to move from the city to the wilds of Eastern Long Island to the large open spaces of Huntington, New York. It was a totally rural area at the time, and never became crowded and urban.
He and his various familial groups – through divorce, affairs, and another marriage with three children – and another divorce – lived there until the time of his death. His son from Leo’s first marriage, my beloved cousin Ivan, stayed there until he graduated from college.
So Leo went to the Hebrew International Settlement Agency and asked to be retrained as a farmer. When told of the enormous difficulties of farming life, together with the management and expense of hundreds to thousands acres of land, he decided against it. However, HIAS made him another offer: they would train him to become a chicken farmer – this was in the days before Colonel Saunders ruined the rural aspects of this occupation by raising chickens in veritable concentration camps.
It sounded too good to be true. And, in the end, it was. Leo eventually ended up being a master plumber, but that, dear reader, is another story.
At any rate, he suggested my father go to HIAS, and as a result, the two men were trained for six months in a HIAS facility in Bound Brook, New York.
After graduation, my mother refused to move to Huntington. She and Leo had a hate relationship which both of them cultivated. To me, the ultimate irony for Cousin Ivan and myself is the two of them are spending eternity together in the same cemetery plot.
After a great deal of Sturm und Drang, HIAS arranged for us to move to Richland, NJ so my father could become a chicken farmer.
With few exceptions, it was a dreadful time for us, especially for my parents – the insularity, physical attacks, and prejudices of the area – including the KKK burning a cross on our front lawn – were dreadful. “We should have moved to the New England States.”, was an unending lament.
Eventually, mom made my father attend training classes as an upholsterer in nearby Philadelphia. Then they, themselves – both expert carpenters – built a huge one-story building, the size of a present day Colonel Saunder’s chicken coop, in which my father plied his successful new craft. Mom, after all the years of being a farmer’s wife, returned to her occupation of being a quilt maker. She turned out fabulous and hugely popular machine sewn down comforters and pillows, as well as hand stitched woolbatt quilts.
The building still stands today.
The former chicken coops and barn were abandoned with glee.
Life is never smooth, is it? After the death of my brother, Larry, in 1947, we returned to Long Island: Jackson Heights, New York, where they opened a successful Upholstery / Quilt store in the shadow of the Elevated Subway trestle.
Chapter Two: Liesl’s Adventures and Joys in Richland. Liesl is my family nickname.
Despite the negative aspects of Richland for the grownups, during the year, I roamed free through the adjacent Pine Barrens. Sometimes my companion was the next door neighbors’ grandson, Richie. He was a year younger than I, and we managed to get into trouble on a regular basis. His grandmother and my mother often punished us for our misadventures, and finally believed they had trained us well. No such thing occurred! We just learned to lie.
But that is … “y’know”, as the Geico commercial says …
My parents would never recover from the flatness of the land. They had to ice skate on the pond of an old gravel pit when it was cold enough to freeze. Skiing was an impossibility: no hills and no snow.
However, Dickie and I had no problems with swimming in Pine Barrens tea water, climbing high tension poles, meeting hermits and ghosts (really! See Annie under the Faith Category)), working with and harvesting various crops for surrounding farmers, and riding our bicycles for miles on the dirt road in front of our homes, which led to a network of more dirt roads. We picked berries and cranberries in season, gleefully worked in our own homesteads’ gardens and chicken coops, learned to candle eggs, kill chickens, hunt with rifles, and cut down Christmas Trees in the surrounding pine forests around us.
In the winter, it seldom snowed, so we had no use for my sled. The few time an inch or so fell, we gleefully zoomed into the old gravel pit until all the snow was demolished. Mud doesn’t work as well as snow.
Snowmen were built, of course – however they were only six inches high.
One winter, there was a blizzard. More than two feet of snow fell. We sledded to our hearts’ content!
Then, the next day, it was so cold, the snow actually turned to ice , and the dirt road in front of our farms lent itself to ice skating until the thaw began.
I had a brilliant idea.
Glancing at the barn at Dickie’s grandparents farm, I pointed out the steepness of the roof and its side penthouse, as well as the steep roof and its full penthouse around the long side.
Dickie was excited with my plan.
We got to work by dragging four inch thick by two feet wide by twelve feet long boards to the penthouse, and laboriously dragged a set to connect the barn roof to the lower addition by jamming it the eave. Then we were able to line up another board from outer edge of the penthouse roof to the ground. There were no eaves underneath.
It took us over two hours to get everything lined up.
Next, we climbed the ladder up the side penthouse and up its next ladder to the peak of the barn roof. We hauled our sled up using a rope.
Carefully crawling along the peak, we placed the sled facing downwards. We fastened one end of the rope to the weather vane, and I held the other end which had been placed sideways between the runners. Dickie got on first and then I mounted the sled.
At the count of “three!” we detached.
What a glorious ride!
Down the barn!
Onto the first board!
Down the second roof!
Onto the second board!
The board had never been weighted down on its lower end where it touched the ground.
We hit the board.
The connector end crashed like a broken seesaw.
Dickie became airborne and was thrown head over heels into a pile of hay about a dozen feet away.
I, unfortunately, stayed on the board as it slammed straight onto the ground.
My coccyx was smashed.
Well, an ambulance ride is not as thrilling as a sled ride.
There was nothing they could do at the hospital.
After three months the pain was gone.
And, then – THEN! – my mother spanked me.