Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Perceptions of Youth

by Bill Holmes 

I have no idea what triggered this line of thought but the other day I found myself looking up something about the area of New Jersey where I was born. I consider myself a Floridian but in fact I was born well north of the Mason-Dixon line. I got to the South as soon as I could. One thing led to another and before long I was checking information about the towns some of my cousins lived in. We moved to Florida when I was six years old so many of my memories are faded or distorted by the eyes and memories of a four or five year old. There were a few visits back to the old neighborhood in New Jersey during my youth and a couple in my adulthood but things change. I don't think I've been back to the old haunts in 35 years. I've been to the New York City area many times in those 35 years but it was always on business and I never seemed to have time to venture into Northern New Jersey to just wander around. Most of the relatives are either dead, have moved from the area or I've lost touch with them so there wasn't any family to visit. Most of my NYC area business trips were to IBM in White Plains, Poughkeepsie, Fish Kill or to GTE in Stamford or Norwalk. All those places are north of the city. Those times I was in Manhattan for meetings or a conference I never had a car. I didn't want to take a bus or the PATH trains across the river without having transportation at the other end. The closest I've gotten to that area lately is when I watched the Sopranos.

Both my grandmothers and a couple of aunts lived in the town right next to the one we lived in when I was little. My parents each had two sisters so we didn't have a huge extended family. I only had eight first cousins, two of whom were born around the time we moved to Florida. One of my mom's sisters and one of my dad's sisters lived way far away, or so I thought. I remember piling into the family car, initially a 1938 Olds later a 1946 Pontiac, for the trips. It seemed like we had to drive through the country to get to their houses. That was exotic to me. The town we lived in and the next one over where most relatives lived were pretty much built out even way back then. Those two distant aunts also lived in what I thought were big houses on huge lots. We lived in an apartment as did most of the rest of our relatives. One other local aunt lived in a house with a postage stamp yard. The front yard was only a couple of steps deep and a couple of feet wider than the house. So, for our visits to the boondocks we had to go for a long drive through the country and then we arrived at a large estate.

Now the reality. I recently looked up the distances on Google Maps. One of these country families lived about 15 miles away. The other a whopping 25 miles. Now I know the roads in 1950 would be different than those today and speed limits were lower but there would have been less traffic and I doubt the total distance would vary by much. We also usually made those visits on the weekend so traffic shouldn't have been too bad. To put this into perspective many people have daily one way commutes to work longer than 25 miles. Many Sundays I ride my bike over 30 miles often over 40 miles. I ride more than 15 miles during many weekdays.

Another big deal and long trip was when Mom would take me to Manhattan. It was actually about a 12 mile bus ride and then a couple of more miles by subway to the Museum of Natural History. Radio City Music Hall was about eight or ten blocks from the new Port Authority Bus Terminal. We would go after morning rush hour and although the bus made a few stops, it was not like a local route with stops every block or two. Not exactly an epic journey.
Museum of Natural History - NYC
Another thing I had no concept of was the population of those towns. As I said earlier, the towns in our immediate vicinity were mostly built out. One town ran into the next with no unincorporated land to be found. Ironically the town I live in now is almost built out and is completely surrounded by other towns with no unincorporated land. There is still unincorporated and vacant land in other parts of the county though. The town I live in now is about three times more populated than the crowded town I lived in back then. Part of that is because a big chunk of the old home town is a cemetery with a population of almost 300,000. That includes several relatives including my Mom's ashes and my maternal grand parents. As a child, we lived a block from the cemetery and my friends and I used to play in the open areas. We never played near the graves. If you did that you would become a resident immediately and go to Hell. By the way, the cemetery seemed huge back then and in fact it is, over 200 acres.

It isn't just little kids that have problems with distance perception. One of my cousins who is a few years older than I am was in Miami at a convention in the 1960's. This cousin had lived his entire life in New Jersey and hadn't been out of the Northeast very often. While in Miami he called my dad, his uncle, to say he had some free time during the convention and since he was in the same state thought maybe he'd drive up to visit us and have lunch or dinner. Well, it's approximately 350 miles from Miami to Jacksonville. I think a 700 mile round trip would have been a little much for lunch. Needless to say he didn't drop by. Turns out Florida is a little bigger than New Jersey. I don't know what he'd think if he ever visited Texas

It's funny how our perceptions change over time. That huge house or long trip of our youth becomes a little cottage and a 15 minute drive. I'll never again see my grandparents big house or drive to that aunt and uncle who lived way out in the country. I'll never take that adventurous bus ride to Manhattan again to see the dinosaurs at the museum or a movie at Radio City Music Hall. What I will always have are the memories. As long as I have those memories, Aunt Helen will live far away in the country with a huge yard and Manhattan is another world only reachable by a big bus. All those trips requiring me to take care of my wonderful Mom, or maybe the other way around.

Do you have any huge places that have shrunk or far away places that got closer?


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