Into The Suburban Wild We Went

Dear Michael and Caroline,

In our walk to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School every school day morning, we could have taken a route through the streets, same as all the other kids. Gone down this block, then up that block, sticking to the sidewalk, playing it safe.

But no. Instead, we took a shortcut, preferring the woods – or, more like it, the swamp. We would enter a parking lot behind the Grange Hall and head toward the tall reeds, a stream running through it all. We had to tiptoe across the rocks to keep our shoes dry. A rain would leave the ground muddy and the leaves on the trees dripping wet. The reeds stood so thick and tall that we could barely see 10 feet ahead.

Still, we trod on through the thickets. We were boys, traveling in a pack, a tribe unto ourselves, me and Don and Paul and Carl and Steve and Andy and maybe Larry and Mike, and we were doing what boys often do, roughing it, proving ourselves, thrusting ourselves into the wild.

And so it went in Fair Lawn in the mid-1960s. Even though the town was established by the 1920s, and pretty well populated by the 1950s, during my boyhood it still had traces of the wild, little pockets here and there. Only now that I’ve lived so long in a city do I clearly see that at last.

It took my friends and I a while to outgrow this tendency to venture into the wild. We pulled the same stunt in high school. Rather than take the streets to Fair Lawn High School, we cut across a baseball field off Saddle River Road and then, more daring still, crossed the railroad tracks that ran through town.

Crossing railroad tracks, back in those naïve, ignorant days, had yet to be stamped taboo. So cross the tracks we would, we suburban swashbucklers, doing our derring-do.
To approach those tracks lent our days a thrill. For starters, you had to beware no train was coming from either direction. You listened for the chugging, chuffing sound, the screeching rattle of metal grating against metal, the whistle wailing its warning.
We would play games to see how close we could cut it, either darting across the tracks just seconds before the train passed or simply standing close to the train as it went by.

Once we came across a dead raccoon laying on the tracks, obviously run over by the train. Its eyes bulged out, as if from shock, and its teeth were askew, as if bared one last time. We marveled at that raccoon, the first we had ever seen outside of a zoo.

But that’s how it went if you traveled in a pack. We would each somehow try to outdo the other, prove ourselves braver or more skilled, or both. One of us might fling a rock at the passing train, or lay a branch in its path.

Life then felt like an experiment. Everything was trial and error and improvisation, each moment impossible to predict. Fair Lawn then still retained a touch of the rural.

On the next block over from ours, surrounded by nothing but dirt and trees, stood a large, wooden barn, for decades unoccupied except by mice and bats. One night the fire department burned it down. All the neighborhood, especially the kids, came out to watch the barn go down in flames, the night sky all aglow with brilliant orange and red flickering.

Houses would now be built there, just as townhouses now occupy the swamp that served as our shortcut to junior high school. The swamp, the train tracks — it all formed the map for our boyhoods. The town was still young then, and so were we. We and the town also still had a touch of the wild.

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