Monday, January 17, 2022

Winter in the "Olden Days"


Greenvale Raiders: Marilyn, Albert Stein, Freddy, David Fuhrman, 1960

My mother claimed, and rightly so, that she walked all the way to school from her home in Camden, New Jersey, even when the snow was deep. And she was proud of it.


Therefore she reasoned, her children should do the same. Back in the early ‘60s, schools in Moorestown, New Jersey, where I grew up, didn’t close unless snowfall was going to be over 6 inches or so.


One morning, I woke with excitement to a winter wonderland—snow coming down at a good clip. I was in 4th or 5th grade (1961) that year and walked to school by myself or with my brother or neighborhood kids. In spring and fall, we’d ride our bikes the easy mile, cutting through an apartment complex to enter the playground and park our bikes. But in winter, many times one of our parents dropped us off in front of the school.


Backyard Moorestown

I knew even then that my mother was afraid to drive in the snow. She had a nearly new ’59 white Chevy Biscayne, the model with soaring fins that my dad had bought her. It never left the driveway unless the streets were cleared of all snow and ice. So that morning, she brought up that I should follow her example and walk the 0.8 miles to Lenola School in the snow.


I wasn’t pleased.


But I donned thick leggings, my heaviest coat, hat, and mittens before pulling on a pair of red rubber boots over my shoes. Traffic down normally-busy Camden Avenue was light; cars crept slowly along. I was about half way to school when my friend Franny’s mom pulled up in her snazzy black Ford Thunderbird. The window went down and her mom shouted, “Marilyn, do you want a ride? Get in.”


My route to Lenola School

Franny was smiling from the back seat, warm.


My pride won out over practicality.


“No,” I muttered, not even no thank you.


“I’ll walk.”


“Are you sure? Come on,” her mom answered.


“I’m OK,” I said, stifling a few angry tears that my own mother wouldn’t give me a ride, but Franny’s would.


Years later, I learned that my mother lived right next door to her elementary school, so walking to school in the snow was nothing. As a young mother, I often trotted out “I walked to school in the snow…” whenever I didn’t really want to do something my kids had asked for. It became a joke, and I even used it on my mother years later, when we could both joke about this and share a good laugh.


Two years old, Collingswood, NJ, 1954

Real snow days generated a lot of excitement. But even more excitement happened when a cold snap froze our local water hole, Strawbridge Lake, solid—solid enough to support ice skaters.  Strawbridge Lake snakes through suburban Moorestown providing fishing, picnicking, and skating opportunities for many people. As a kid, I walked down to its marshy shores in summer to catch tadpoles and to throw out a string with a hook attached to catch “fish.” In high school, we kids had a place on the Lake called The Spot where we’d meet up to “pre-game” before going to local dances.


Ice skating days were the most special times.


At the corner of Haines Dr. and Kings Highway where the Lake started, a flagpole sported a solid red flag that appeared after Thanksgiving. The red flag meant “No Skating!” When the lake was not frozen, this was obvious of course. But usually sometime in January ice developed, and we waited for city officials to declare it was safe for skating. Then, and only then, a Green Flag was hoisted up and the fun began.


Strawbridge Lake in fall

As a kid, my ice skates had two blades and strapped on over my shoes.  A kid with these clunkers couldn’t do much in the way of fancy skating, but these skates were affordable and worked. In 5th grade, my feet had grown enough to fit adult sized skates. That Christmas, “Santa” brought me a pair of white, single bladed, high top ice skates. They were a couple sizes too big, and to fit properly the toes were stuffed with Kleenexes or toilet paper with two pairs of thick socks. [The bigger sizes insured the skates would last three years. That 3rd year, you’d wear them with a single, thin pair of socks.]


My mother was a very good skater and taught me some simple moves. I was not a natural skater. My first day, I wobbled uncertainly out on the ice. A stiff wind was blowing. I fell trying to turn and landed on my rear, feet out in front of me. Standing up again was a challenge. I made it to a squat then the wind started blowing me across the ice. I literally froze. Facing me not 10 yards away was open water, an unfrozen patch kept open by a flock of mallard ducks.


“Help!” I screamed. My mother turned and quickly skated over, stopping me from what I was certain was going to be a cold, icy death. She then taught me how to stand up with skates on and off I went.


Skating on the Lake

After school the Lake filled up with kids bundled up in their warmest clothes. Girls skated in packs, linking arms and going for long distances together. Boys, wearing black and brown hockey skates, formed informal teams on the far side of the Lake. Hockey sticks were primitive, some boys had real ones, while others played with an appropriate sized branch. Their games were intense and only ended when darkness completely over took them.


Girls in search of adventure found large sticks on the far shore and rode them like witch’s brooms. You’d get a good head of steam skating as fast as you could, then sit on the stick and scoot along hollering like banshees. Life was good.


You were cold, but life roared with fun.


Many of Moorestown’s kids would go sledding at a slope called Stokes Hill, which was at the opposite side of town from where I lived. Since my mother didn’t drive in the snow, it was only in my teenage years that I got to check it out. For South Jersey kids, this “mountain” was a real thrill. It was packed with kids of all ages. By the end of a big sledding day, the snow would be completely trampled down with grass showing in places.


Snow and ice didn’t last long in South Jersey. In a few days, we were back to dreary streets and frosted brown grass.


A first snow man with Freddy, 1954

I think that might have been what made those snowy, icy days so memorable and so special. Looking back 60 years or so from sunny warm California, I’m thankful for those magical days in childhood.

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