NEAR MONTICELLO, IN THE HEART OF THE BORSCHT-BELT, THE MEGALOPOLIS OF SOUTH FALLSBURG TODAY HAS A POPULATION AROUND 2,200. ABOVE, IS THE STREAM WHERE MY POPPA CAPTURED THE TURTLE. IT IS ALSO THE PLACE WHERE I DEVELOPED MY LIFELONG DISTASTE FOR FISHING.
The turtle was strapped like a trophy to the hood of my uncle's Rambler and hauled back to Brooklyn. In mid-September, it was presented as a gift to my sister and I. This was not the common half-dollar-sized green beast you bought in pet stores. Therefore we couldn't get away with one of those clear bowl-like cages with the cute little island and plastic palm tree.
Our turtle was a huge, five-by-three inch monster...and mom wasn't going to allow that filthy gargantuan in our house. Instead the poor amphibious bastard was left to languish outside, at our back door...in a wobbly (convex bottom) metal bucket.
Sis would bring daily bits of chopped meat or lettuce and fill a tiny water saucer. And because at age seven, she was infinitely more aware of anatomy than me, she searched (unsuccessfully) for the physical evidence that would identify our "bucketeer's" sex. As soon as she was convinced of this stalemate, she dubbed our box turtle, "Henry-Henrietta." I never bought into this ambiguity. Based solely on gender-bias, I called HIM Morty...and I couldn't have been more prophetic.
My sister allowed Morty exercise time in the backyard. He preferred to roam the lawn and flower beds rather than the long concrete alley that led to the driveway...and eventually the street. She was also sensitive to the elements. Sis would drain rain water and/or place the bucket in a drier spot. On a couple of occasions, the bucket toppled. Morty seized those opportunities to escape but because our hero was a country-bumpkin, he lacked the necessary criminal instinct and was always found, gamboling or lolly-gagging on the grass.
Two months went by. After a frosty, rainy night, the first cold snap of the season enveloped Canarsie. In the morning, we were shocked to see Morty encased in ice. Although our pet's horrible suffocation death rattled us, the wintry weather postponed any ceremony that would have honored him.
A few days later, the temperature rose to the high thirties and our walk home from school was highlighted by warm sunshine. We went to the yard and found that somebody had kicked Morty's bucket. Sis righted his pitiful excuse for a cage and discovered a miracle. The ice had melted and she proclaimed our little friend to no longer be dead! Immediately, he was re-classified as; missing. While sis tried to explain the concept of hibernation, we scavenged our yard. We saw a rut under the fence that divided our property from the Duff's next door.
We ventured into the vast unknown of the Duff's backyard. We searched the narrow strip of land between our common fence and their shed.
I was looking behind the shed when I noticed that the property around the corner also had a shed that wasn't flush to the fence. I concentrated on that sliver of space and my imagination deemed it a great hiding place...especially when I was old enough to climb over the chain-links.
My daydream was interrupted when my sister said, "Uh-oh, the Duff's are home." I came around to see Mr. Duff pull into the driveway. His kids got out, paid us no mind and ran in the house. Duff summoned us to him. He lectured us about trespassing and staying on our side. This blithering continued as we followed him to the curb. He was retrieving his trash cans when we were mortified to notice in the gutter that Mr. Duff's car had just smooshed our Morty.
We didn't blame our tragedy on the Duff's. Over all, they weren't bad neighbors. But considering that they had a daughter my sister's age and a son my age, it was surprising our families (parents too) never connected. For a short time, years later, our relationship temporarily brightened when they bought a dachshund puppy.
THE DUFF'S NAMED THEIR POOCH, AUGIE. IN THAT ERA, THERE WAS A LAW REQUIRING EVERYONE TO GIVE THEIR MALE WEINER-DOG THAT NAME. THE INSPIRATION CAME FROM, "AUGIE DOGGIE & DOGGIE DADDY," A SECONDARY CARTOON ON THE, "QUICK DRAW McGRAW SHOW," (1959-1961). THE CRUX OF THE SHOW WAS DOGGIE-DADDY INSTRUCTING AUGIE IN A KNOCK-OFF JIMMY DURANTE VOICE. HIS MAIN CATCHPHRASES WERE, "MY SON, MY SON," AND, "DAT'S MY BOY."
I was ten when Augie got lost. He was gone for some time before Mr. Duff figured he had a full-blown crisis on his hands. A reward of a bottle of Coke was offered to us kids and the whole street was mobilized to find the brownish red devil. I was tempted to join in but the sweet six-ounce allure wasn't enough. Instead of searching through other neighbor's shrubberies and gardens, I chose to satisfy my long time fixation.
I took the situation as a green-light to go into the Duff's yard, in the name of hunting for their pup. I went behind their shed. I was shielded by the small wooden building so nobody could see me easily scale the back fence which had become my Everest. Equally important, the shed around the corner blocked my view from their side.
Ironically, after I came back on the street to re-join the Augie search, the bugger was found safe...in the shed. Just think, one little bark or a stinking whimper and I would have scored on both ends...
At night, in the summertime of my adolescence, we played, "Freeze-Tag," our version of, "Man-Hunt." The Duff's had moved away and I made regular use of the space between the back-to-back sheds. My friends never figured out my clever vanishing act and until now, I never shared the genius of my 100% success-rate escape route. Then one day, I made practical use of it...in reverse.
I attended Hebrew School, Monday through Thursday for four years. After a long day at public school and a three city-block walk home, I had the added drudgery of four more short blocks and another long one. During my last year of parochial training, when I was twelve, the ninety-minute session was from 4:30 till 6:PM.
On one snowy day, the class was especially tedious because I anticipated a colossal snowball-fight after school. Although there was a flood light along side the Synagogue, our battleground was mostly in the dark. I was already armed with a stout projectile when I saw my friend with his back turned. I flung my best fastball and WHAM ! It was the shot of the century...a bulls eye to the back of his neck. In the split second that I reveled in it remaining stuck, straddling his shirt collar and dripping down the back, I was horrified to see it WASN'T my friend. My victim was an older bully who was there for Bar Mitzvah lessons.
I could see by his budding anger that he wasn't going to accept this as a simple case of mistaken identity. When he called me a SCHMENDRIK, I ran. He followed. Luckily I was wearing sneakers and was able to use the tire ruts in the slushy street. He was older, more athletic and faster but he was wearing heavy boots. I reached the corner and he was still coming. For the next three blocks, every time I rested and looked back, my dogged pursuer, like Inspector Javert from, "LES MISERABLES," was obsessively on my tail.
On the street before mine, I had an epiphany. If I cut down the wrong block and used my secret escape hatch...in reverse, then maybe, he'd be tricked into thinking I lived on that street. And hopefully, when he couldn't find me, he'd become frustrated and forget the whole mess. For good measure, I ducked into the yard before my jump-off point with the relentless ruffian steadily advancing. I then snuck behind that house into the yard behind the Duff's. Hidden by their shed, I jumped the fence to the sanctuary of the Duff's yard. Cloaked by darkness, I skulked onto my property.
I was home early. Mom always calculated some dawdling time after Hebrew School so dinner wasn't ready. I ran upstairs to sneak a peek at our street to see if he was still after me. Mom noticed my bizarre behavior and called me down. She saw recognized my expression of guilt and asked why I was huffing and puffing. When I hesitated, she accused me of cutting class. I wasn't even lying when I said, "It was cold, so I ran home."