It was long ago. The autumn had come and changed the appearance of my town. The leaves had yet to fall, but their green skin had changed into different variations of yellow and orange. The weather was no longer warm, but cool, as if it were in between the perfect climax before falling too far in the other direction.
My street was busy. Then again, it was always busy. The traffic on Merrick Avenue was constant; however, it was more congested during the morning and evening rush hours. Cars ran from west to east down Glenn Curtis Boulevard to avoid the extra lights and delays on Hempstead Turnpike. Glenn Curtis was a mainroad shortcut between Merrick and the Turnpike. On north side were three tall, glass buildings, which were built on a stretch of unused land during my youth. Other than the Medical center, these were the only tall buildings around. Otherwise, the neighborhood was made up of middle-income homes, grocery stores, and small strip malls. We were happily small and gratefully untouched by the harshness of an updating society.
To the south of the Boulevard were a sump with a sandy bottom and a large vacant lot. As a boy, that sump and vacant lot was my playground. As kids, my friends and I would build clubhouses, or treehouses. We built forts, only to have them torn down the next day by some of the older kids in the town. The vacant lot was filled with areas of tall grass, trails, and old fire hydrants from when the land belonged to an air fled, also known as Mitchel Air Force base.
We played hide and seek in the fields. I buried treasure there. After she died, I buried my pet rabbit there too. I once spent an entire afternoon digging for Indian arrowheads. I had read somewhere that a Long Island kid found an actual arrowhead while digging holes in his backyard. If my memory serves, the young boy even scored with having his picture in the newspaper.
My Old Man would never let me dig holes in my backyard. It was hard enough for him to deal with frustration of our dogs digging holes—let alone entertain the ideas that I would dig several scatted holes in the backyard to find an arrowhead. I did ask his permission though. I asked while sitting at the dinner table. I suppose I should have chose a better time.
While eating chicken from the bone, sweat beaded at the top of The Old Man’s lip. This is how my mother knew he was enjoying his meal. She would explain, “If his lip is sweating—then I know he’s enjoying it.”
Then she would intercept me or my young boy questions and suggest, “Let your father enjoy his meal.”
“Can I dig for arrowheads in the backyard?”
The Old Man had both elbows on the table. His thick black eyebrows folded downward and the wrinkles on his olive-skinned forehead increased with intensity as he sucked the meat from a chicken bone. There was a slight bit of chicken grease around his glistening lips and his graying hair was somewhat wild after a long day at work.
The Old Man had just come home. My father was heavy handed and blue collar. He was not abusive, by any means. He was old fashioned, to say the least. I assume my house was old fashioned as well and that was fine with us.
My mother would suggest I give The Old Man some time before asking questions or making any requests. She would remind me of this when The Old Man phoned and announced that he was on his way home.
“Your father had a rough day,” she would tell me. “Let’s give him a little time to relax when he gets home.” This was good advice. But young boys will be young boys, and though I often regretted not listening, I still asked when my mother suggested not to.
The Old Man was not angry that I wanted to be adventurous. He was not angry about my imagination or frustrated with my need to explore and act like a child. Digging scattered holes in the backyard, however, was a much different story.
As I asked, I stood next to The Old Man. I assume my head had yet to reach his shoulders when he sat. I was so unbelievably young and small then.
His concentration on the meal did not break. The oil from the chicken wet his fingers. I could hear his lips smack against the white meat as he enjoyed the seasoning with every bite.
Without looking at me, The Old Man muttered, “No.” and that was that. Quickly, my mother scurried in and rushed me into the other room to watch television. “Let your father eat,” she said. “We can ask him about this later.”
As she walked me into the den, I heard my father speak from the table. “He can ask me all he wants. I’m not letting him dig holes all over the backyard.”
The dream to find an arrowhead or any amazing relic or artifact of history was not lost on his answer. Instead of the yard, I chose wisely, and began to dig holes in the vacant lot across the street. I tried different spots. I selected different places—like beside a tree, or near a series of bushes. I dug a few holes out in the open until the digging seemed more like work than fun.
After a short while, my hands began to hurt from the old wood handle on the smallest shovel we kept in the garage. The Old Man never liked this shovel so it seemed best to take it instead of borrowing a shovel he regularly used. It was smaller, and lighter, however the shovel became heavy after digging so many holes.
What began as an all-out treasure hunt, turned into me losing interest, kicking rocks and turning over cans or old cigarette packages that were littered and left behind. Eventually, I grew bored and slightly lonesome. And eventually, I decided to walk over the dirt hills and head through the trails to get back to my house.
The times were different then. It was okay to be a boy. It was okay to walk outside and it was safe to explore. The town of East Meadow was a good place. We had our struggles like any place else—but it was safe to walk the streets and it was acceptable for a boy like me to explore without the concern for predators.
As I approached the end of the vacant land, I noticed a well-dressed old man. I had never seen him before. He had perfectly white hair and old skin. He was very pleasant looking, like a grandfather. Walking near, the old man waved. He looked around and asked me, “Do you know what this place used to be?”
Slightly timid, I answered. “My dad said this used to be an airport.”
The kind old man smiled. He looked around as if he were trying to picture the area as it looked when he was there last.
“Your father is right,” he said.
His watery eyes seemed to haze as if he were lost in a young memory.
“This place was very different once.”
I watched the kind old man look around at a place that once had meaning to him. I suppose he was better than finding an arrowhead. He was an unknown piece of our country’s history. He was dressed in a red jacket with a buttoned down shirt beneath it. He wore khaki pants and brown, penny-loafer shoes. His wrinkled hands were covered with scattered liver spots, and though I was too young to recognize them, his dentures were sparkling white.
I suppose he was last on the base in his days of service. Perhaps he was there when they decommissioned the air field in 1961. Or maybe this is where he returned from war. Maybe that air force base was the first piece domestic land he walked upon after fighting for our country on foreign soil.
“What’s the shovel for,” he asked.
“I was trying to dig for Indian arrowheads,” I explained.
“Did you find any?”
“No. I wanted to dig in my back yard but my dad said no.”
The kind old man laughed.
“It’s probably better that you dug around here then. “
I went home, but I never forgot the kind old man. I never forgot the smile he had or the way he looked around and tried to envision the old lot as it looked when he was young.
These days, that vacant lot has been developed and turned into adult housing. The three tall glass buildings are still on Glenn Curtis Boulevard. The baseball fields are still nearby, but even they have changed. The town is different now. The traffic on Merrick Avenue remains constant and the morning and evening rush hours are still the busiest times. Glenn Curtis is still used as a shortcut to bypass the intersection on Merrick Avenue and Hempstead Turnpike.
My house is still where it was. It looks mostly the same. The stoop is different. The spreading maple tree that my Old Man planted on the front lawn was taken away and the backyard, I assume, looks similar to when my mother sold the home. I suppose the treasure I buried in the empty field across the street and the body of my pet rabbit have been dug-up and moved by backhoes and machines.
I sometimes drive passed with my daughter in the car. I point at my old house and tell her, “That’s where I grew up.” I look around. I look at my old house. I look at the adult living homes that stand in an area that was once unused. I look at the new traffic light, which now sways across the width of Merrick Avenue like a red, yellow, and green pendant in front of the house where I grew up.
Like the kind old man, I look around and I try to see the area exactly as it was.