Brigade Camp was a terrifying experience, but it wasn’t the only one in my young life as a solo traveler. Somehow, even the most benign of sleepaway trips had a way of scaring me. Maybe it was Mom and Pop’s way of toughening me up. That certainly could apply the summer I visited Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie.
Uncle Robbie was my grandfather’s brother. He and Aunt Elsie had one son, Robert, who was married to Billie, with whom he had three children: Rodney, Ruth Ann, and Ronald. They all lived close to one another somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. I remember that because when I was very young, Poughkeepsie was my dream of an oasis.
Every summer, the Baisley clan would descend on Uncle Willie’s house near Saugerties for a family reunion. Uncle Willie was another of my grandfather's brothers. On the same property, his son, Clint, was building a house. Year after year, reunion after reunion, it never seemed closer to finished.
I loved our family reunions. Mom and Pop and I, and John when he was home on leave, would get up early on that Saturday morning. Mom would pack some picnic food, Pop and I would toss our baseball gloves in the trunk, and off we’d go. I’d quickly fall back to sleep.
Waking up was the best thing ever, because I’d wake up in Poughkeepsie, the halfway point. We would always stop at the same roadside restaurant for breakfast. For me that meant pancakes. Yum! And there was more. That restaurant had a little rack filled with cheap toys, plastic soldiers, water pistols, and the like. I rarely got toys that weren’t birthday or Christmas gifts, except from Aunt Barb, but on reunion day Mom and Pop always let me pick out one item from the rack. Being a parent myself now, I realize that toy was a small price to pay for keeping me quiet the rest of the way to Uncle Willie’s.
A lot of adults I didn’t know showed up at those reunions, and some kids I really didn’t care to know. I had some male cousins who made fun of me for being small and not very good at sports. But my female cousins, who were more plentiful and closer to my age, made it all worthwhile.
Most years, Lois, Ellen, and Doreen would be there. They were the daughters of Pop’s brother, Jim, and his wife, Catherine. I admired Lois, a couple of years my senior. She was cute, smart, and never used the fact that she was bigger than I to her advantage. Ellen was my age, but I still preferred Lois’ company. Doreen was just a little kid. They lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, right upstairs from Pop’s sister, Lil, and her husband, Pick. Uncle Pick’s real name was William Lattimer Kidd, but he was Pick until he retired and moved to Florida. There Lil and Pick recreated themselves as Lillian and Bill.
I saw Lois, Ellen, and Doreen most Saturday nights at Grandma's, so being with them at the reunion wasn’t a special treat. Being with Pam and Susan, Cousin Clint’s daughters, definitely was.
I had a crush on second cousin Pam from the moment I first met her. I think I was eight and she was ten. Each year, as we hung out together on Cousin Clint’s swing set, it seemed we had more in common. Mostly it was music. I’ll never forget the afternoon we belted out Diane Renay’s Navy Blue and then laughed and laughed. Neither Pam nor Susan ever judged me for being short or skinny. I always looked forward to family reunions because of that.
One year, family reunion held an additional component. I was not going back to Brooklyn in the evening. Instead, that year I was going to spend a week with Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie at their home outside Clinton Corners. They’d be heading into the city the next weekend and would drop me off at home.
Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie lived in a remodeled gas station at the side of a state highway. The abandoned pump island still dominated their driveway. It was an unusual home that had fascinated me on my previous visits. Of course, none of those visits involved spending the night. But the chance to play with Ruth Ann and Ronald, who lived down the road, was worth it.
Days at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s were kind of fun. They kept me busy with chores, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Aunt Elsie was a decent cook, and the fresh-from-the-garden quality even made vegetables taste good. Nights, however, were a different story.
Whoever had turned the old gas station into living space had neglected one important feature, a bathroom. Yes, the house had indoor plumbing. Running water gushed from a kitchen sink, and another sink occupied a corner of the dining room. But the toilet was in a tiny shack about thirty yards from the back door.
What slithered, crept, or skulked through that thirty yards in the daylight seemed harmless. Chipmunks, garter snakes; they seemed friendly enough. One evening a strange odor filled the house. That, I was told, was a skunk that had probably been frightened by a dog.
I’d heard about skunks and even seen pictures in my Golden Nature Guide to American Mammals. And I was afraid of them. They looked sneaky, and I worried that an encounter with one would embed their stench forever in my skin. One time, just to terrify me, Karl and Max Kriegel hung a giant poster of a skunk in a room in their house. They threw me in there with it and I screamed.
Once I knew that skunks visited Aunt Elsie’s backyard, my need for a midnight pee intensified. Every night I waited as long as I could until finally I had no choice but to put on my slippers, grab my flashlight, and face the unknown. It was awful.
At least Robert and Billie had a bathroom in their trailer. In later years their house would have been called a mobile home, but in the 60s it was a trailer. I got to spend a night there midweek in my stay upstate.
I liked my cousins. Rodney was older than me and a bit of a bully. He never let me forget who was bigger and stronger. I tolerated him, knowing that we had enough in common, like a love for pocket knives and bike riding, to keep our relations friendly.
Ruth Ann was a bit of a tomboy, and I loved her for that. Maybe a year younger than I, she loved to play in the dirt with toy trucks or plastic soldiers. She and I, along with Ronald, made an intricate highway system using an old butter knife to scrape out roads in the dirt of their driveway. Rodney threatened to destroy our work, but he didn’t. It lasted through both of my days at the trailer.
I thought my week at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s would rival the terror of Brigade Camp, but it didn’t. Except for the threat of a skunk and the taunts of Cousin Rodney, it was a pretty good week.
No weeks matched the ones I spent at Aunt Barb and Uncle Freddy’s for sheer joy. Listening to Uncle Freddy’s 78s and playing with Aunt Barb’s plastic clothespins were great fun when I was very young, but once they moved to Lynbrook, and I approached my teen years, the times spent on Ocean Avenue were some of my fondest memories. Many of those memories centered on Faith, who lived next door.
Faith played a key role in my one and only night of terror in Lynbrook. It was a Friday night, and I had just turned eleven. Faith had invited me over to listen to records and watch our favorite TV show, The Twilight Zone. I loved that show. I’ve always enjoyed a good short story, and that’s really what The Twilight Zone consisted of. That night, one of the series’ best known episodes premiered: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
William Shatner starred in the episode as a traveler on a plane who sees some kind of gremlin messing with the wing. Neither his seat mate nor the flight attendant can see it since it disappears every time someone besides Shatner looks out the window. Just when Shatner, and the viewers, think the creature is gone, the passenger looks out the window again and there it is, full face looking in.
I practically jumped off Faith’s sofa. I’d never been so scared of anything in my life, not skunks or rats or bullies. Faith was scared too, and her parents said I could stay there a little longer until I felt safe enough to walk next door to Aunt Barb’s.
I never did feel quite safe enough, but after a while I called Aunt Barb, explained the Twilight Zone episode, and asked if she would put all the lights on in the back of the house and meet me at the back door as I ran full speed from Faith’s yard to hers.
I made it safely to Aunt Barb’s house, nestled fearfully in the guest room bed, and dreamed, of course, of the creature. The next morning I asked Aunt Barb for some crayons and a length of white paper tablecloth. I faced my fears head on by drawing my best rendering of that airborne monster. It never bothered me again. I wish I could say the same about William Shatner.
What were the holidays (Christmas or Hanukkah or other big days) like at your house? For the Baisleys, that was when the ribbon candy appeared, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.