In the 1960’s we moved to scenic West Milford; then a rural community in the rolling hills of North Eastern New Jersey. Our four bedroom Cape Cod was built into a half acre of wooded hillside – so the front looked tiny. However, the back was actually three stories high and consisted of an above-ground basement, the ground floor, the three room upper story, and a full-size attic above which was hidden within the roof itself.
It was – and still is – a fascinating area. The hills were formed at the same time as the Appalachians, eroded down, and then rounded off by glaciers. There are ruins of iron mines, furnaces, and manufacturing plants. Gold, silver, and various semi-precious stones can be found, Lenape Indian villages are scattered throughout. Unique plants, animals, and birds found nowhere else in the state live there, including cactus! In the hills are caves famous for their bats and fluorescent minerals. UpperGreenwoodLake is a well-known body of water in the northern part of West Milford.
In those days, funds were very tight, so we only had one bathroom for ourselves and our four children.
The development had two streets which formed a “Y” from the main road. It was small: about seventeen homes from the top of the hill. Our home was at the intersection of that Y, which ran steeply downward to the shores of the PequannockRiver.
We lived there between 1966 and 1977, at which time we moved to the RancocasNatureCenter in Westampton, New Jersey.
Over the years, we finished off bedrooms, and part of the basement, and added a huge garden, which at one point contained marijuana plants – but that, my friends, is another story. Most of it was legal, by the way.
Some of my children are still in touch with former neighbors’ children through Facebook, and I occasionally exchange messages with them.
Our basement was an interesting place. Over the years the usual laundry and heating appliances and the children’s indoor play area played host to a series of pets and exotic pets we were baby sitting: a South African Otter named Sam, exotic snakes (our own pet snakes were kept in cages in the living and dining rooms), various rabbits, tame rats, turtles, opossums, baby raccoons, wounded birds, and a semi-tame woodchuck who ate his way through the insulation up into the attic.
In other words, we felt at home.
As time went on, I graduated from college, and the funding situation improved. Until then Christmas presents from our parents were used to purchase auto tires, make repairs, and replace worn out appliances.
One Christmas Eve, our gas hot water heater blew up. You know: BANG!!!
However, the annual Christmas largess enabled us to buy a new one. The plumber, an old timer in the town, was a bit crotchety, and he agreed to come on Christmas Day to install the new heater.
As usual, brought his tools and his daily ration of bourbon: a quart bottle. After the pleasantries, he lit his cigarette and disappeared into the basement. Occasionally he would call on my husband and/or myself to assist, but he was cheerful.
Finally, after two hours of hard work, the heater was installed. He told me he was ready for lunch, so I dutifully went upstairs to prepare it.
Our intrepid hero, lit a cigarette, and turned on the gas.
A huge explosion followed by a sickening THUNK rocked our house.
I called 911. Within minutes the volunteer fire department arrived. They were having a Christmas celebration at the firehouse, a mile away.
Frantically, I raced downstairs, while my husband turned off the gas. Our hero was burned on his arms and face, so, being on the first aid squad, I gave him first aid. There was no fire. The tank did not go through the ceiling. But when it came down, it knocked him in the head and opened a cut.
Suddenly, I realized there was one fully clad fireman – complete with axe and carrying part of a hose on each one of our basement steps. While I filled them in on the events, they came down and inspected. I look at one of the volunteers, and said, “Hey! I know you! What’s your name?”
Everyone started to laugh hysterically.
I was stunned.
He took off his coat. He took off his undercoat. He took off his hat. Then slowly he removed his goggles.
Very slowly and dramatically he said, “I am your minister, Liz.”
My jaw dropped.
“I didn’t recognize you without your collar.” I stuttered. He took off his scarf. There was the clerical collar.
Then he reached over and lifted my jaw back into place.
Eventually, then they put the plumber on a stretcher which had been wheeled in.
They took away the plumber’s bottle and cigarettes.
Then, the crew removed the wounded heater, brought another one from the plumber’s truck, installed it, all the while singing Christmas carols.
Within half an hour we had hot water again.
As we merrily exchanged Christmas greetings and hugs, our plumber friend was put into his truck, and the minister drove him home. Just before they left, one of the firemen brought him his bourbon and his cigarettes.
Thankfully, he took a swig and lit a cigarette.
I understand his wife almost had a heart attack when the entire fire department arrived at their house.
Oh, yes, our friend recovered in a few weeks. The injuries were not dangerous.
In church that Sunday, the minister strode to the altar dressed in full fire gear, while we call gasped. After he stripped them off, he told of his adventures.
It was a merry service.