There was a woods behind my house, when I was growing up on Long Island, that was full of mystery and adventure, nature and wildlife. The Woods, prosaically named by my older brother, was really just a clump of ten or twelve trees at the back of a school yard that had recently replaced a potato field in the post war suburban sprawl. Next to The Woods was the remnants of the potato farm that included a barn, a chicken coop with a crowing rooster, a sad swayback old pony, some out buildings and some broken down farm machinery. We called this The Farm. It even had a little farm stand on the highway where my mom would send us running, unaccompanied, for some corn, a tomato, a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk.
The Farm was surrounded by tiny little houses, built in the Levittown assembly line style to house the returning veterans from World War II and Korea who were escaping dirty Brooklyn and hot Queens. Ten thousand GI Bill dollars, mortgaged over 30 years at 2%, would get you a 1/8 acre lot with a 3 bedroom, 1000 square foot house with one bathroom, an unfinished basement and a garage, all for 37 dollars a month. For open space every home was allocated a front yard and a back yard that we thought was the field of dreams and behind it all was The Woods and The Farm. It still had a rural feeling to it if you squinted real hard or was a wide eyed kid.
As a young boy, your world is severely limited, simple and easy. I had no conception about the rest of the world around us. When we dug a hole we imagined we could dig to China and when we lay on our back and looked at the clouds or stars we imagined that they were the same ones the kids in Africa were looking at.
I could not imagine the megalopolis, chaos and confusion that surrounded me, the humming Parkways and packed trains full of workers commuting to The City, or the planes overhead bringing people from all over the world to the nearby Idlewild airport, named after a local golf course developer, before it was renamed after an assassinated president, JFK.
The Farm consisted of old cluster of farm buildings with a few stubborn and deluded acres of remnant farming. The only inhabitant was an Aqualung type of old man named Mandread, who hobbled around maintaining the farm and the old equipment. He lived in a windowless tar-paper shack next to the barn all year round, I imagined. He skulked around the farm like a ghost’s silhouette and never said much but growled or grumbled at me if I came too close. He wore a red plaid, Elmer Fud type hat with a brim and ear flaps, a red checkered flannel hunting shirt and coveralls like Mr. Green Jeans did on Captain Kangaroo’s TV show. But he was no friendly Mr. Green Jeans. He was a spooky, dirty old dude and we gave him a wide berth.
One day the old guy was nowhere to be found so I started snooping around and checked out the barn, the chicken coop and eventually, with much trepidation, the tar-paper shack. The door was only a big, dirty, heavy horse blanket and I carefully pushed it aside and crept into the dark room. There was a small wood stove in the corner that was smoking even though it was early summer. There was a bed and a dresser in the other corners and a small table with one chair in the middle. There was garbage and old food wrappers everywhere with beer cans and whiskey bottles thrown in the corner.
What was astonishing to me was that the interior of the shack was completely wallpapered with pictures of naked women. Not porno stuff, since it was the sixties, but tasteful, above the waist shots of buxom women with straight backs and perfect hair, smiling and looking slightly off camera. I was transfixed as I walked around the shack, gape mouthed, admiring the artwork.
Suddenly the pile of old rags on the cot in the corner stirred and rumbled and Mandread rolled over and gazed at me with his one glazed over, evil whale eye. 'What the fuck are you doing in here' he garbled gruffly. I nearly shat my pants as I stumbled backwards falling to the ground clutching at the horse blanket door, unwilling to stay but unable to run. I sat there almost crying but couldn't muster even a feeble response. Mandread rolled over and put his feet to the floor where they found his old rope soled shoes and slipped them on silently. With some effort he got to his feet and shuffled over to me. My eyes were as big as saucers as he raised his dirty scabbed and gnarled hand over me menacingly and then just rubbed my shaved head as he smiled a toothless grin. My own private Boo Radley.
'You are that crazy kid that runs around here throwing sticks, singing that Indian song and peeing in my corn field', he said sitting back down on his dirty bed, carefully rolling a cigarette with one hand. He reached under his pillow for a small pint bottle half full of what looked like gasoline and he took a hit. 'You think I'm weird, don’t you. You think I'm a monster', he began. ‘I see you throwing rocks at my cats and chasing my chickens around my farm’ he said while slowly shaking his head and regurgitating the whiskey, ‘but I am just an old man and this is my house, this is my farm.’
‘This is the only home I have ever know’ he continued slowly, almost swallowing his words, ‘I have lived here for more than 80 years, before the turn of the century, before airplanes, trains cars, phones or electricity and before the likes of you and your dinky ugly houses that have taken my land and my livelihood.' He spat on the dirt floor and whipped his bloody chapped lips with his hand leaving a blood mustache smudge across his face. 'My family and friends, my livelihood are all gone’ he almost moaned, ‘this place used to be my paradise, a garden of Eden, before it was invaded by all this development and progress’. ‘Now it is shit ' he told me sadly with a tear in his one good eye, ‘but I am not leaving, I am too damn old and too stubborn and besides, I have nowhere else to go in this world.’
I flinched at the profanity but gained courage from his humanity. 'I am Matthew and I am sorry for what has happened to you and your farm but I am a friend to everyone and everything in The Woods. I love your farm for the smell of the dirt, the color of the crops and the fun of running blindly thru your corn rows. It is the only open land around in this concrete neighborhood it is the only thing that is real. I will be your friend and will help you keep this place beautiful and green so the kids around here will know what it is like and won’t go crazy'.
He smiled and shook my hand, thanked me and after a lot of chit-chat and sharing of some disgusting chewing tobacco, he let me help him feed the pony, collect some wood and clean the eggs out of the chicken coop. When the sun went down and my mother called me across the open yards, we parted with an understanding of the old and the new.
I grew up a little that day realizing that there are small powerless people who suffer big consequences in this world and we can do nothing about the cruel passage of time. I went back to visit him a few times but mostly we just waved at each other knowingly across The Woods and The Farm fields. We weren’t great buddies but we understood and shared this bucolic corner of the world knowingly.
Then one spring I saw an ambulance at the farm and then I never saw him again. My personal Puff the Magic Dragon was gone Eventually they tore down the farm and built another Waldbaums grocery store, a Greenstamp return center and a Phantastic Phill’s Pizzeria. The Bastards. They took The Farm, The Woods and the heart and soul of my youth.