boulevard

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Philadelphia Main Line, Lincoln Highway, US 30. Although I grew up in Brooklyn, many of my early memories—much the most intense part of my education, so to speak—are strung along an arc from Montgomery County west to Harrisburg and south to Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Hagerstown. The roads of one’s childhood and youth. Weaving and criss-crossing. Signposted with discrete, not always reliable, memories. Like most things when you are young, devoid of context, but resonant and mysterious.

In 1953, Walter and I, two fourteen year olds, took a bus to Harrisburg and hitchhiked south as far as Hancock, a town on the Potomac River in the somewhat lawless little neck of Maryland, the narrowest part between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

It was fall and the packing plants were humming and Walter and I got hired on at one of these, loading crates of apples into box cars. We camped out on the river in a crude tree house we made. On the second evening the boss said he had to let us go; he couldn’t take a chance with runaway kids.

That night we were out on the highway in front of the packing house ready to hitchhike anywhere, when an old guy pulled up in a battered Buick and asked if we’d help him. No one was around by this time, but he claimed to have permission to haul away damaged fruit, of which there was a great mountain pushed off to the side of a loading dock.

Gordon—he said his name was—found some old grain shovels and we began shoveling apples into the Buick. The back seat had been long removed, so we filled the whole back of the car out into the trunk and, without much being said about it, all squeezed into the front and took off over the river and into West Virginia.

Gordon’s method of driving was to zoom up hills and then switch off the lights and turn off the engine and coast down the other side in the moonlight, sometimes for miles on end, at terrifying speeds. We stopped twice on the way. Once by a cornfield where Gordon wielded a corn knife, a kind of stubby billhook, and filled whatever space was left in the back of the Buick with stolen corn stalks. Then out back of a country store he knew of, where he retrieved from a rubbish bin a couple of broken pies and a dented brick of Velveeta cheese.

The apples and the cornstalks were fed to the scrawny red cows he kept, wandering freely along a steep wooded ravine, and we dined on the pie and cheese before falling asleep in his lean-to of a dwelling.

In the morning Gordon said he had a brother, up at Five Forks, in Pennsylvania, who could use some hands this time of year, and so we went there. The brother’s name was Marshall and we pitched hay and cleared stones and shucked corn for our board, and painted out-buildings at a nearby orchard and mixed cement for bricklayers in Waynesboro, which happened to be where my mother’s people were from, and we ran into some of them, but they didn’t tell. Marshall drank Old Crow corn whisky from a bottle while he drove. Marshall’s wife had a limp and could swear something fierce, but she didn’t permit really dirty words. We slept in an unheated attic and sometimes the daughter, Dottie, would come up and crawl under the covers with us. Nothing else.

When the snow started to fall, we headed south and didn’t stop until we got to Texas.

I didn’t see Waynesboro again until I got stationed near there, by chance, in the army, guarding a mountain bunker at Raven Rock, where, it is said, Dick Cheney hid out after nine-eleven.

Scan

We are dressed up, and the old kodak with the long bellows is brought along and pictures are taken out of doors. A stranger must have been stopped and asked to shoot us all together. We are visiting the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx Park, posed in front of the Museum Building, Carl Tefft’s sculpture The Fountain of Life visible just behind us.

The photo is one of many my father sent to his brother in Norway and which was passed on to me many years later by a cousin. My father wrote on the back of this one “Juni 1945—Her ser du hele familien paa Sondagstur i N.Y. Botaniske have.” The whole family, he says, you see here on a Sunday outing in June.

There is a problem with this. The Bronx is a long trip from Brooklyn on the subway; not by any means a typical Sunday excursion in our chapel-going household, considering Sunday School and Morning Worship and then dinner, with time only for a rest or a stroll before the Evening Service. Nor are the clothes we are wearing—my father’s three-piece suit, my mother’s hat and coat—suitable ones for any Sunday in June in New York City. No, this is clearly Easter Sunday, a day when people commonly went to a botanical garden for the Easter lily displays and the early flowering shrubs and to parade their finery. The corsage just barely visible on my mother’s coat is the clincher.

Was my father confused about the occasion and the date? It seems unlikely. I think rather it was important to him that his family in Norway regard his life in America as including such splendid and apparently routine expeditions. An ordinary Sunday outing.

And perhaps something else. A delicate bit of tact. In 1945, as it happens, Easter fell on April 1st. The German occupation of Norway will not end until the 8th of May. My father’s family have had a hard war, with personal tragedy. Now communication is open for the first time in years. It is June. Normal times will come again. Sunday outings.

I see I am dressed in an Eton collar. And knickerbockers. I ask my brother, here pictured in short pants, if he remembers ever wearing knickerbockers and he says no, but he remembers my wearing them to school. And indeed I do have a memory of frayed stockinette cuffs below the knee, baggy corduroy swishing and chafing the thighs, long stockings with clapped-out elastic slipping down schoolboy shanks. From all of which I conclude I must have been in the very last cohort of children ever to wear knickerbockers.