Penn’s Woods

One of my third grade school assignments was to write and bind a book.  I’m sure there were lessons in how to actually sew the spine and whatnot, but the end result was really quite ugly – it involved contact paper (the kind you lined your kitchen drawers with in the 80s), heavy construction paper and a pencil.  That project is probably the singular reason why the act of “writing” intimidates me so much.  I love to read, I was obsessed with books back then, long before the days of iPads, Kindles and Nooks.  I wanted to create something awesome, epic and beautiful like the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica my parents had on their shelves – so I wrote about the most exotic place I knew – Pennsylvania. 


This well-intended exercise made me realize I couldn’t draw for shit, so I enlisted a friend to illustrate it.  She wasn’t very good either.  It was handwritten, my penmanship never really evolved past kindergarten and I didn’t have too much to write about – one chapter is about the pool and it is two sentences, the pivotal scene involves my eating a chili and spitting it out.  There are only mentions of things I’m glad I didn’t elaborate on as they might have had my grandparents or parents answering to the authorities and no one wants that.  I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations are up, and, well, we survived, and these are the stories you realize make you stronger and I had a pretty kick ass childhood…so here goes, I’m going to rewrite my memories of Pennsylvania.


Chapter 1 – The Car Ride
Original text – I like Pennsylvania!  I like the car ride.  I do not like when there is traffic.  I like when we go on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge because we see the Statue of Liberty.



The car ride from our home in Long Island NY to the Poconos in Pennsylvania was a long one.  My grandparents would often take my uncle, cousins and I up for the weekend or for longer stretches in the summer where we would climb aboard their brown econo-van and settle into our seat on the couch in the back with containers of fruit and snacks and immediately start haunting my grandfather with “Are we there yet” within five minutes of pulling out of the driveway.  My grandfather would yell from the driver’s seat “ten minutes” here and there, mostly ignoring us for the two and a half hour drive.  When we got bored we’d throw grapes at other cars from the windows that didn’t really open, they just hinged an inch or two out, which got really hot with no air conditioning.  My grandparents would talk about the other drivers beeping occasionally, but didn’t seem to notice their little band of hoodlums in the back seat were the cause.  There were no seat belts, if you didn’t fit on the couch, you’d often sit on a cooler or just lay on the floor in defeat when you couldn’t fight anymore.  And we fought, giving each other mean red friction injuries we called “Indian burns” and pinning each other down, threatening to dribble a loogy dangling from your mouth to your victim.  I never mastered the loogy threat/slurp, so mostly I was the victim on that one.  Sometimes there was bear wrestling in the back of the van, with the sweet black lab mix named “Bear” who probably just wanted us to sit down and behave too.


Eventually we’d pull into our little sanctuary in the woods and the fun would begin.  After we passed the front gate, we’d start climbing a red clay hill we called “Mt Geronimo” and it would be only minutes before we were lighting the campfire (more on that later), cleaning up acorns from the squirrels that ran through the trees built into the middle of the “house” (more on that)…no…wait…


The second chapter was “At the Campsite”.  At least I seemed to be building a story.  The original text reads “When we are there I like to go inside!  (Apparently I was over enthusiastic about exclamation points from a young age)  It is always different."

And now, rewritten with more detail…


Different is an understatement, my grandfather is a bit of an industrious, eccentric genius, where I think back then we just saw him as "handy".  The story goes that they bought the site when my mom was a teenager and they camped in tents.  It evolved throughout my childhood, though never to the point of being able to do a number two in the bathroom…that had to be done up the road in the public bathrooms.  By the time I was going "the camp site" was a trailer that my grandfather had built a shack on to the front of.  There was also a “bunk house” out back, which was basically a shed with two sets of bunkbeds where the boys slept, and a wardrobe I’m pretty sure I thought I could get to Narnia in.  Or maybe that’s just how I tried to escape the reality of being closed inside with my uncle blocking the doors on the outside of it when I was being particularly annoying.  In the front of the “house” where my grandfather had built a spacious kitchen and a cozy living room were two tall trees.  Inside.  There were trees in the house.  The structure was built around them.  So, often while eating breakfast at the long picnic table inside, a squirrel might dart down one tree, jump to the other and climb back out.  My grandfather would yell at them and then spend hours on the roof trying to repair the entry point.  Only there were trees in the house, so it was a bit of a losing battle.  On rainy days we’d play atari, cards and read.  There were no computers back then and I’m glad for that.  On days when we were outside, we had one rule “Be home for supper”.  To this day I’m awed by two things.  First, our parents presumably had the same rule coming from the same household…and yet they let us go.  And second, we didn’t wear watches, we must have had some sense or knew a lot more about where the sun was in the sky and when, because we were never late.  We just knew when to be home.



Chapter 3 was called The Carnival, I don’t remember that being particularly interesting, so I’ll just say I remember getting an awesome mirror painting with unicorns that my cousins helped me win.  Very 80s, you probably had one too.  I loved that mirror.


Chapter 4 was about the pool.  The pool was unremarkable, except for the dumpsters a few hundred feet to the right across some gravel.  The dumpsters as you might guess is where everyone threw their trash.  Trash attracts bears and there were no shortage of real bears (not the dog) in those parts.  Bears we’d casually walk past when going back up Geronimo for the night.  In the dark.  I’ll say it again, we walked past bears in the dark…a lot.



I wasn’t afraid of bears because my grandmother would often hand feed them from the front door in the mornings.  Little cubs would come up and she’d HAND FEED them…and I remember her encouraging me to as well.  Perhaps I left that out of my story when I was 8 knowing it might encourage an unhealthy non-fear of bears with my peers.  I must have known better.  My cousins and uncle would ride me around on motorcycles and often we’d go to the bear caves which were nearby.  We never saw bears there, but we sure tried, creeping around trying to find them sleeping presumably to say hello or poke them with sticks, who knows.  But that never happened, thankfully.  And, by the time I wrote this little memoir I’d developed a fear of them coming into my bed and eating me, I know this because there’s a chapter about my uncle scratching at the window taunting me about it.  Or at least that’s what my grandparents told me, but I swear I saw scratches on the window, or that’s what I said in my little book.   Don’t trust 8 year olds, they exaggerate.  This version is all true.




There is a chapter about motorcycles.  This is where I should probably explain my uncle is only about 5 years older than me.  He was usually the most senior of our little group.  If my cousins weren’t there with me, it was just him and me.  And having a kid following you around when you’re 12, 13, 14 must have been really obnoxious.  Sometimes I was the little sister who cried when my grandmother combed the knots in my hair with him behind her sticking his tongue out at me and making it seem even more torturous than it was.  All in all, he made a good older brother those years, taking me on adventures (bear caves and Chinese star throwing) and tours of the lake (I wrote a few sentences about that in my grammar school story, but I don’t remember a lake at all), and he included me when he lined up his plastic soldiers on the fire pit and we’d play with gasoline and melt them.  I was a total tomboy and being around boys with free reign in the woods all day was pretty awesome, and I know how to play with fire, which is an important skill when you have a MacGyver complex. 



My favorite memory/story from those summers was when my uncle came back from riding around one day and noticed his motorcycle handlebars were coming off when he lifted them.  My grandfather and he tried to figure it out, and the verdict was that he’d lost the main bolt that kept them attached.  You’d think that would have been it for riding around on the motorcycle for a day until…I don’t know…maybe you take it to a shop and get it fixed…but no…We were sent on a mission to retrieve the bolt.  I was told to put on jeans (I always had to wear long pants for safety when riding along) and given a large magnet tied to a string.  Cue the MacGyver theme!  I was to hold on with one hand and tow the magnet behind me while we retraced his steps to retrieve the missing bolt.  Only, the handlebars kept detaching from the bike.  And the magnet kept getting caught in the wheel and I’d fly off the back.  We never found the hardware, but we tried.  And more importantly, we survived.  Just like MacGyver would, except he probably would have found the bolt and then foiled a plot involving Russians with bad intentions.  That didn’t happen in the Poconos, at least, that we know of.


There is a chapter on Blueberries that I’ll just re-title “Foraging”.  I went on a tour of Central Park the other day with a guide that showed us what we could eat.  As a kid we ate what we found and somehow never got sick.  Since we were due home at supper, many days we left at breakfast and foraged for our food during the day.  The allowance my mom sent me with kept my belly full of candy and the berry bushes kept us nourished.  I didn’t know about the importance of drinking water back then, I don’t think anyone did in the 80’s, so we didn’t.  Yet we were fine for it.  And, though I’m pretty sure playing with fire is universally never a good idea, we did, every day and night.  Everyone had a firepit.  There were no guitars and singing Kumbaya, but there were marshmallows which my grandmother showed me her favorite way to toast.  Get it ablaze for a good minute or two, then blow it out when it was black on the outside and gooey on the inside…it’s my favorite flavor, burned.


When I first tried to tell my Pennsylvania story, I never imagined I’d grow up or that our campsite wouldn’t be there anymore.  Years later my Grandparents sold the campsite and my since then my grandfather went on to do something else involving a tree that left us all scratching our heads.  It was hard to to miss the apple tree on their front lawn pruned into Jesus being crucified – complete with a face, crown of thorns and whittled ribs.  My aunts and uncles have recreated much of the experience in a place we call “The Compound” in upstate NY, but there are no trees in the houses or Jesuses on the lawn.  It's similar in that there are fires and midnight runs through the woods, which probably are bear infested only no one encourages the kids to hand feed them.



The moral of this story, don’t encourage kids to write books.   Most of them are terrible writers who don’t understand irony yet.  Then they grow up into crappy bloggers who spill all the family beans to strangers.  Encourage them to watch MacGyver and read – so when they lose something they don't give up and when they're locked in a closet they think of Narnia instead of being afraid of confined spaces.  And if you're thinking that my family is crazy, we threw sharp metal stars at trees and hand fed bears, you don't want to mess with us.