Summer Memory Essays by Sandra Hurtes, Lynne G. Tenbusch and Carol J. Wechsler Blatter
Last week I begged for more essays and here are three generously shared by Writing It Real members for our post this week. Thank you three!
by Sandra Hurtes
It was a hot night in August 1969. My boyfriend, Michael, was picking me up at 2:00 a.m. in his silver Mustang. When he arrived, we would leave Canarsie and head for Bethel, New York, where the three-day festival, Woodstock, would unfold. I was eighteen years old and unaware it was the eve of an event that would define my generation.
At midnight, the telephone rang. My mother ran into the kitchen in her pale blue nightgown. A minute after her breathless hello, she held the receiver out to the side.
“Jack says you’ll never make it,” she said. “Traffic is backed up for thirty miles. He says you should stay home.”
My brother had left for the festival with a friend; he was protective of me in spite of his own rebelliousness. Michael was pumped up for months about us going; he would kill me if I backed out.
I took the phone from my mother. My brother said, “There are no bathrooms. Cars are overheating. You should stay home.”
My father awoke, stood at my mother’s side, his face drawn and tired. Huddled by the telephone, we all listened to the frenzy of Woodstock, and it hadn’t even begun.
“Michael won’t stay home,” I said.
“Where are you going in the middle of the night?” my father asked, his voice thick and foggy with sleep.
“Woodstock,” I said.
“Woodstock?” my father said. His eyes held no memory of the permission he’d granted me weeks before. “What is that?”
I looked at my mother. With her hair crunched against her scalp, deep pillow creases on her cheek, she seemed surreal amidst the language of hippie music festivals. She wouldn’t override my father.
I felt thwarted. Michael would absolutely not stay home. He was born for Woodstock. With his black wavy hair and his long, skinny body, he looked like George Harrison, my favorite Beatle. Michael was like him too, the lonely Beatle everyone but me forgot to pay attention to.
My parents weren’t blocking the door. They would live through my defection. If I went, I would discover what lay on the other side of saying yes.
I called Michael.
He answered immediately, boomed, “Hello!”
I didn’t tell him about the roar of loneliness in my chest; I didn’t tell him I was physically unable to disobey my parents. Even if I wanted to.
Instead, I said, “Jack called. He said we’ll never get there. The traffic is backed up; he’s stuck on the Thruway.”
Michael inhaled deeply on a Marlboro or a joint. “We’ll get there; I know the back roads.”
“Jack says it’s crazy…gas stations are empty.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not going.”
“I don’t know…” I stammered. “It sounds awful.”
Michael drawled into the telephone, “You’re a drag.”
He went without me.
The next day it seemed every one of my generation had fled for the promises of Woodstock. I spent that eerie day with my best friend Laurie. Mercifully she was at home, too. I didn’t know why. She was more the Woodstock type than I; India prints from an East Village head shop decorated her room. Her tinted-green contact lenses turned her eyes emerald. She told all the boys she was from Mars.
Canarsie was a ghost town. Laurie and I went for a drive. Every street we drove down was empty, desolate. Or maybe that was the way I felt.
We ended up at Plum Beach, a tiny stretch of sand and water somewhere in Brooklyn we would never again find. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot in the cool sand near the water’s edge. Laurie’s camaraderie was comforting. Yet, I still felt a deep emptiness.
I pictured Michael lying on the grass, a joint pressed between his fingers, shouting whoo-hoo when Grace Slick belted Don’t you want somebody to love? I saw him passing the joint to a girl with long blond Joni Mitchell hair. They would smile crazily at one another. Michael would remember the blissful connection forever, loving the one he was with. .
I needed to be at Woodstock. For once—if only for once—to drink too much, smoke too much pot—be one of those people reaching up from the thick of mud for nirvana, to blow my own mind. I needed to see that I could cross my family, and nobody would die.
But if I had to miss out on Woodstock, Laurie was the person to be with. She was popular and so pretty with her long straight hair that she wore parted in the center, with bangs that fell into her Martian eyes. Being with her made me feel that I was okay. I had learned so much from Laurie. Once or twice, three times at most, I’d told boys that I was from Mars. I’d flashed my tinted contact-lens eyes at them, more avocado green than emerald. Their approval lingered on me like perfume.
There we were—two young spirits—wandering around a Brooklyn I’d never before seen. Like the set of a science-fiction movie about the end of the world
On Monday, I went to Michael’s apartment where he lived with his parents. He stood at the door, his shoulder-length hair loose and scraggly around his neck. Sweat glistened on his bare chest. His heavy-lidded eyes were puffy and red. They were teary, too.
That was good; that meant he’d either missed or forgiven me.
I hugged my lonely Beatle, my warrior who’d braved the wilds of Woodstock. Michael and I stood in the doorway wrapped around each other for a long time. A few days later, he gave me a card, signed as all his cards to me were—I love you anyway. His disappointment had passed.
We loved each other, in spite of or because of, our different natures. When our love was on the line with one of us about to cross to the wrong side, we held on tight.
My disappointment in myself had not passed. I’d lost out on what might have been a life-altering experience. Yes would have rescued me from my good-girl instincts. Yes would have been a skip over a line that kept me sealed me in place, kept me from changing into a freer model. My own person. That sixties expression, how it haunted me.
I knew this then, although I acted in ways that could never have let on. Certainly not on the weekend I didn’t go to Woodstock, and too, on the day I’d stood outside Michael’s door, taking in the rawness of him, the sameness of me.
Two weeks later I wanted to see Max Yasgur’s Farm, the grounds where Woodstock had taken place. By then it had been in all the newspapers and was historic. I hoped that just being there would count for something.
The land was barren. There was so much space. And so many ghosts. Jimi Hendrix’s sweat beaded up on the horizon. Janis Joplin’s manic screech, Save me! Echoed off the clouds.
We stood on the grass for a long while, looking at the days of Woodstock past. And probably at ourselves. Separate and together. We each held a piece of what the other wanted to be. Separate, we were opposites who had intrigued the other. Together we formed an awkward, but tantalizing, fit.
Michael and I looked one more time at what was once Woodstock. Then we got back into the silver Mustang and drove away, listening to eight tracks. The Grateful Dead. Van Morrison. The Mamas and The Papas, singing “Dream a little dream of me.”
Please Don’t Do It
by Lynne G Tenbusch
July 8, 2022
Pulling my right leg from under the furry warmth of eight dog legs, I tried to extricate myself from the playpen couch. I found no clear path to remove my body. I was wrapped in the bodies of my two Great Danes, Blueberry and Puppy Hegel. It would have helped to be a gymnast. I had to balance with my arms as if doing push-ups, then swing my upper body across the cushions and hope that I landed feet first.
Task accomplished. I walked through the study area of my basement heading for the stairs. Neither of my dogs stirred. Three steps into the study and I realized that something was amiss. The usual picture of this area was out of order. My focus was drawn to the floor where the Papason Chair sat as if waiting for me to fill it with my fussy writing paraphernalia, rulers, and books, as I used to do when my late husband watched TV in the room I had just left.
My attention moved to the base of the chair where the wood met the carpeted floor. Immediately I recognized the serpentine shape of the figure hugging that wood. I stealthily moved in for an accurate view. I knew by this time, that my visitor came in the form of a snake, but the colors were not right for a Garter snake or King snake, both of whom had graced me with a visit in the past.
Sneaking in closer, I realized that my bare hands needed protection. In retrospect, I do not recall whether I knew at that point, what kind of snake was lying in my basement. I was, however, certain that this could be a dangerous situation, because I did not recognize the colors. Then I became fearful that my dogs would wake up and be curious about what I was doing with our new company. That would be trouble because though Blueberry, my ten-year-old, would just watch, Puppy Hegel, only a year old, would lead with an open mouth. His entire world is experienced via that mouth. Multiple shredded and dissected fragments of what were once whole toys readily testified to Puppy’s oral aggression.
With both apprehension and a sense of excitement, I moved quickly but soundlessly up the stairs and into my ‘tractor accessories’ drawer, found leather gloves and hurried back to the scene of the uninvited guest. Using my thumb and forefinger, I carefully grasped this snake just at the base of her head. Only then did I hear the distinct rattle. My concentration became more focused, just as she became more determined to free herself.
She tensed her body, trying to wriggle from my hand, and rattled at a ferocious speed. Her tightened muscles moved with so much force that she was working her head out of my hand. She had secured enough length to bite at my hand, getting closer with each strike.
“Please Don’t Do It” became my mantra. “Oh, Beautiful Michigan rattler, please don’t escape my grasp. Please don’t be so afraid. I will not harm you. Please return the favor. Please don’t sample me with your poisonous fangs. I know that you probably would not kill me or my dogs, but you could do some damage. Then I would have to spend my day at the vet and possibly emergency room.”
I paused to regain a firm hold on Ms. Michigan and was able to look closely at the coloring on her backside. She was adorned with a creamy white background dotted with angular spots of black. I really wanted to hold her and enjoy her beauty, but she was becoming more active, and seemed to be gaining strength. I struggled momentarily with my desire for more time with her, but her seeming anger was really terror and I did not want to contribute to that. Additionally, because she was a rattlesnake, I could not safely luxuriate in the velvety touch of her skin.
The decision made, I walked upstairs, keeping an eye on how close she came to unprotected areas of my body. Outside, I again almost lost my grip as her strikes per minute increased. My hold on her was still sufficient to prevent her from reaching above my glove. Each time I saw her fang meet my gloved hand, I lost a bit of security. But when I had to look away for safe footing, the strikes sounded benign, like scratches on a rough surface. I was becoming mesmerized and again felt the desire to be with her and enjoy her colors. I hesitated. But I quickly came to rest with the fact that to act on what I wanted would be selfish. My gorgeous visitor was not enjoying this encounter.
With some sadness, I walked toward the wooded area of my land carefully watching her attack my glove. I leaned down and opened my hand. She slithered away as if at the finish line of a race. She was still rattling out her rage and terror.
I Schlepped My Heavy Black Suitcase with Enough Things to Last This Summer
By Carol J. Wechsler Blatter
Summer 1949. I schlepped my heavy black suitcase with enough clothes, towels, toiletries, medicines, and anything else my mother thought to pack for me for this summer, off the camp bus. Arriving at camp in bucolic upstate New York’s city of Beacon near the Hudson River was a significant change from the busy businesses and screeching, cranking noises on Kings Highway in Brooklyn just around the corner from our apartment. Although our street, East 2nd street was residential, filled with two-story four apartment buildings, these noises could still be heard. I’d never been to the country before. I’d been acculturated to city life for the first seven years of my life.
I was seven years old when I went to sleep away camp for the first time. Was I frightened? Maybe. Having my best and lifelong friend, Patricia, go with me made me less fearful of being away from home. What do I remember about this experience? Upon arriving at University Settlement Camp, I remember gathering in the social hall and the head counselor read off our names and our bunk assignments. Our bunks were given bird names. Carol Wechsler, I heard my name loud and clear. I raised my hand. I’m here. You are in the Wrens. That sounded okay to me. Patricia Goldstein, she raised her hand. You are in the Chickadees. Wait a minute, I said and raised my hand. Panic filled me. I want to be with her. The social hall was so noisy with eager campers that no one heard me. I walked a little closer to the head counselor and shouted, I want to be with her, Patricia Goldstein. Please. It’s ok, don’t worry, you can be in the Chickadees with her.
Then we met Lenny, our counselor, Lenore was her real name. Tall and slim, attractive but not pretty, with dark skin and hair. Once I saw a male counselor kiss her. Was this the beginning of my entrance to learning the facts of life? A little premature as I think back.
What was a day like in camp? We got up when the bugle rang. Bathroom necessities and showers were first, then we made our beds. These were cots with thin mattresses. I can still picture the white sheets, pillowcases, and thin gray blankets we straightened out from last night’s sleep. We stripped our beds and changed our sheets and pillowcases once a week. Here’s where I learned to make hospital corners, those tucked-in corners on both ends of the bed as part of the daily bed-making routine. Casual inspections by our counselors preceded going to the dining hall for breakfast.
Here in the dining hall, there were long tables assigned to each bunk. No tablecloths, probably to reduce laundry expenses. The pale green laminate tabletop was smooth and washable. What caught my eye then and I can still picture after all these years was a glass bottle of milk in the middle of the table and on its top was a separate glass container where the cream was stored. I was always a picky eater, so I have no idea how I got through that summer. My friend lost so much weight that her parents would not send her back to camp for another season. I guess I must have eaten more than she did.
After breakfast we had a variety of activities that rotated. Some days it was athletics like punch ball, volleyball, and dodge ball. Singing was my favorite. Famous folk singer, Pete Seeger, who lived in Beacon, led us in songs. (He wasn’t famous then). Even now I find myself singing, She’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes and then filling in other made-up lyrics like, She’ll be wearing pink pajamas when she comes, and then we sang B-I-N-GO- B-I-N-G-O and BINGO was his name, O. My favorite song was Everybody Loves Saturday Night and the song was repeated in different languages like Yiddish, A la menschen leben Shabbas by nacht and Spanish, Todo el mundo el amor querer el sabado el noche.
Every day we had swimming. I was never a swimmer. I learned how to float on my back. I barely learned the crawl stroke but never accomplished coordinating the breathing with my arm movements. Safety at the swimming pool was strictly enforced. Our counselors stood at different places around the pool holding tall bamboo sticks in case a camper got into difficulty and had to be pulled in. Additionally, we all had buddies. You always stayed with your buddy. If you lost your buddy, you immediately shouted out the name of that buddy and alerted the counselors to find that buddy.
We lined up to be tested to earn a beginner’s Red Cross swimmer’s card. Looking down at the aqua-colored pool waters was just enough to place me in a state of frozen fear. No—no reassurance made a difference. I refused to jump off the diving board. No equivocation. No negotiation. I wouldn’t do it. Please, please don’t make me. And my counselors backed off. Just the idea of jumping in and landing in the water put me in a state of visceral and psychological distress. Because I refused what most other campers willingly and easily did, I never earned a Red Cross beginner’s card. A few seasons later my name was called and surprisingly I was given a Red Cross beginner’s card. A mistake? Did the counselors feel sorry for my sorry attempts at learning to swim for several seasons and gave me a card anyway? I never knew. For many years that white card with the Red Cross symbol typed with my name stayed in my recently acquired wallet, the first wallet I ever owned. Proudly.
As the sun went down, we often made campfires. We enjoyed the yummies, which chocoholics like me loved, squishing a slice of chocolate and a toasted marshmallow between two graham crackers called s’mores. It was hard to eat one, two were ok if the counselor agreed.
Then we heard the blast of the bugle. The disquiet of the bugle was followed by camp-wide quiet.
We heard Taps:
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
After Taps, we knew it was time to go back to our bunk and prepare for sleep. All our flashlights lit the way.
I think about our granddaughter. She, at age nine, goes to a variety of summer weekly day camps, including horseback riding, arts & crafts, swimming, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs. I don’t know if she will ever go to a sleepover camp like I did and her mother, did. She doesn’t need a suitcase for day camp, just a backpack with a change of clothing, a hooded jacket, a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, flip flops, a towel, wash cloth, and a few of her favorite snacks.