Eight Point Five



 Eco Prayer  by rcw

During the summer when I was growing up, we used to have huge family gatherings at Aunt Em and Uncle Dick’s farm in New Jersey.. For the longest time the farm seemed like it was just about in the middle of the boon docks, a/k/a the Pine Barrens, although at the time we only called it “the woods.”  That was before The Encroachment reared its urban sprawling head.

We knew it was coming; first because they were putting new signs in along the Turnpike, but more because of the sound of trees being felled and heavy road building equipment echoing in the nearing distance.

Those were innocent times of striped cotton sun suits and hot dogs, family baseball games and bar-b-ques. We’d drive down from Philly, a two hour jaunt when the traffic was right, five kids and two parents piled into the family car-everybody being kept busy by singing songs or playing “I See Something” and “License Plate Game.” This was back when the little ‘uns sat in the front seat with moms and dads, and until brother Bob came along, that special seat was mine.  I can even remember my hand-me-down car seat.  It had a little steering wheel in the middle, with a funny squeaky horn that had very little squeak left after my elder brother’s
turn at the helm.

We’d start out early, packing the car with any number of toys, folding chairs, the obligatory Coleman cooler full of ice, Mom’s special potato salad, baked beans, hot dogs and burgers and baby formula or baby food, and of course the blue and white thermos of cherry Kool Aid.

Fueling the car back then was an undertaking!  Remember, this was back when gas was around 20 cents per gallon or less!  At the time, gas pumps has bells installed that rang with each whole dollar purchase. Back then, it could take a while to fill ‘er up! The time between each little ding of the bell seemed like an eternity!

Dad would do the driving; radio tuned to WPEN AM where we’d hear Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and all the greats.  We kids loved more modern fare, but also knew how to appreciate good music when it came along.  Most of the time we’d all be singing along to the radio…passing the time as the world passed by our windows. 

I remember the briny/sweet smell as we passed the Old Hickory whiskey distillers that flanked the Walt Whitman Bridge, the pungent pig farms as we got closer to our destination, the sound and feel of the road as we left asphalt for gravel, then finally gravel and sand…that’s when I knew we were almost there!

We’d arrive, Dad honking the horn and everybody spilling  out of the car to the sound of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews running to greet us from the farmhouse and Happy the dog barking hello from the yard. There were usually a few cats and kittens running around as well; I remember becoming particularly attached to one of them….a little black and white one I named Purry.

Anyway, we’d get the car unpacked and freshen up a bit.  Mom, Aunts Em, Ann and Louise  would sit around the huge, round kitchen table, catching  up while shucking corn, snapping peas and making coleslaw.

Dad and Uncle Dick would go off somewhere talking boats, corn, tomatoes, sports and what ever else they talked about as they strode around the property or sat in the Back Pallor to watch t.v..

My sister and the older cousins, nieces and nephews would help with the outdoor set-ups while keeping an eye on us youngsters.  Cousin Rick would bring out the record player and a very, very, very long series of  extension chords plugged together and set it up on a corner of the picnic table.

It was one of those 45rpm record players with a thick round spindle sticking up from the middle of the platter. Cousin Rick would stack as many 45s as he could on that spindle and turn the player up full blast. 

This is where I first heard The Beatles, as record labels go it was during their pre-Capital days-VeeJay Records to be exact. I think this one memory is from the summer before they came and played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, in February 1964.

I remember how the music sounded as it filled the space around me…that special texture of a record being played-its music able to spread far and wide on the breeze rather than contained in a room full of furniture.
I remember “Please, Please Me” and “Love Me Do” because I stopped what I was doing to listen.

It was like the world was standing still, discovering the thing along with me. The thing was the sound, their sound. I knew, even at the age of eight, that my life was being dramatically changed by that music. I remember asking to hear those songs over and over and over.

Luckily the older kids were big fans so there wasn’t much argument on their part. But when it was time for the Family Baseball Game, the music stopped and the team sorting began.  The older ones would get picked first, then us young uns would get filtered into the mix.  I was usually easy to strike out, so wasn’t exactly top draft material.  I did manage to get on base a few times, and even remember the thrill of being brought home on a wild ball that soared off somewhere deep into the surrounding forest.

As evening drew around us, the lightening bugs would come out. By then, the only music was our own…accompanied by the sound of a crackling log or two in the fire pit if we were sitting outside.

If we were inside, we kids would put on a talent show…each one performing a song or poem or joke. Most of the music was A Capella at that point; guitars would be about a year away for brother Jim and I. when this memory was being set to stone.

Leaving was kind of a reverse of our arrival…most of the goodbye-ing would be done in the kitchen on the way out,  Happy would bark a few half hearted woofs from his dog house as we got in the car, and of course those last minute hugs through the car windows as Dad started the engine.  We were soon under way through the thick pine forest on the gravel and sand road, on to the gravel road that marked part of the pending Encroachment, finally the asphalt road to the Turnpike then across the bridge, past the Philadelphia International Airport and on toward home.

What sparked this memory was, naturally, listening to some of the old vinyl…remembering that summer through the mist of a song. 

What does that have to do with Fifty Five being the new anything? Well…Fifty Five Is The New Eight Point Five….the not-quite-nine-year-old days of  my childhood before The Encroachment finally made its way to my uncle’s neck of the woods. 

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