Tag Archive for Growing up in Wantagh

Memories of Growing Up: My Flat, Warm Soda

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I grew up in a household where my parents kept a supply of soda in a cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. I can picture a dozen cans or so — Coke, of course, but also RC and other cola varieties. On rare occasions, orange Fanta or Dr. Pepper. But usually it was Coke, never Pepsi, and it was always available for anyone with a thirst, though it was understood that we, the kids, shouldn’t go crazy over the stuff. It was a treat. Even in the 60s we understood that Coke wasn’t actually “it,” despite the advertising slogan. We knew soda wasn’t good for us — it would “rot your teeth” — though we hadn’t yet come to the place where we thought of soda and sugar as devil incarnates.
We had neighbors across the street, the Charles family who moved onto Adelphi Road in the early 70s with three boys: Jeffrey, David, and Eric. As I recall, and this seems astonishing to me now, they drank soda at the family dinner table. I was always a little awed by that. There were also wild rumors, recently substantiated, claiming the Charles boys were provided cans of Coke in their school lunchboxes. That was not the case in our house. We drank cow’s milk, purchased in school in those little cardboard containers that were so difficult to open. Sure, you pushed the cardboard back, carefully squeezed the edges, and the carton popped open to form a diamond-shaped spout for easy access. But other times the cardboard would get soggy and smushy and we’d require aid from a volunteer lunch monitor. Help us!
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Or, embarrassed and frustrated, we’d give up entirely, tossing the whole sorry mess into the trash can. By digressing thus, I mean only to point out by comparison that my family, the statistically average Prellers, were not an extreme soda house. We were — I thought then, and still think today — pretty normal. Well within range of standard suburban deviations. But how I marveled at the Charles’s. Soda at dinner. Imagine that.
 
So, yes, cans of soda were always available at 1720 Adelphi Road when I was kid, kept under the sink alongside the standard cleaning fluids, the scrub brushes and the Spic and Span, Mr. Clean and the spare rolls of Brawny and everything else. Our soda, warmly waiting. We didn’t keep it refrigerated. Perhaps that was a function of available space. Seven children and one refrigerator, maybe there wasn’t room. But years later, half a century later, when my parents rattled around in a big house in Southampton — “Near the dump,” my mother often pointed out, just so you didn’t get the idea that the Prellers were getting fancy — they still kept their soda in a side cupboard. Old habits. If you wanted your soda cold, and of course you did, you added ice.
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By the Southampton days, a late-80s, post-retirement home built after all seven kids had finished school, my parents enjoyed the happy convenience of an ice maker. The periodic muffled clunk of freshly frozen cubes crashing into the ice container like so many fallen soldiers. Our freezer at work, forming a steady supply for our liquid-filled pleasures. Whereas ice in my younger days was a challenge. Even a few cubes required effort. We wrestled with metal ice trays, frozen and sticky to the touch, loudly banged them on counter tops, muttered and fumed. We yanked up the metal lever to crack the frozen ice and loosen the cubes from their metallic walls. The process never work perfectly, some cubes would fail to free themselves, stuck, unyielding. Others shattered and chipped, a different sort of defeat. We sought perfect cubes, not the chips and slivers and broken bits which melted too quickly. We learned the trick of running warm water over the tray to loosen the cubes. Then it was time for the refilling of the tray with tap water, the careful steady insertion back into the freezer. It would become ice tomorrow. The circle of life. When events ran properly, no sudden cocktail parties or makeshift lemonade stands, we enjoyed an efficient circulation of trays in various stages of newly filled, to “getting there,” to frozen solid.
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Maybe because of all this effort, the pure hassle of it, I preferred my soda warm. And flat. Hot and syrupy and without bubbles. So I developed a strategy. This secret, unspoken thing I did. At a very young age, a time when I still liked crawling under things and into dark places, I would slyly remove a can of soda from the kitchen and take it under a corner desk in what we called the “play room.” I would open the can — was it a pop-up ring? or a feat accomplished with a can opener?, I can’t recall —  and hide the soda on a back shelf. A day would go by, or a week, and I’d return to my flat, hot soda in the secret dark. So good, such a private pleasure, sweetly delicious. Nobody knew.
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That was my soda world in late 1960s America. Each year when I look up anew, that world seems farther and farther away.

The Amityville Horror House in “Before You Go”

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In my © 2012 Young Adult novel, Before You Go, a car full of boys drives off to Amityville to view the famous “Amityville Horror” house. It’s a minor scene, just something for my characters to do while driving around. Not coincidentally, it was a trip that my friends and I made several times when I was a teenager. Always dull and uneventful. I guess it was an aimless, Long Island-type of thing to do.

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

When they reached their haunted destination at 112 Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville, Lee killed the lights and coasted curbside. The boys stared out the windows at the old, silent house. It was three stories high with seven windows facing the street, a few tall trees and a low, neatly manicured hedge set off a few feet from the front of the house. At a casual glance, it looked about as scary as a cucumber sandwich.

byg-202x300They had all been there before, even though the drive to Amityville was more than half an hour. Thee was something magnetic about the place. The house was famous for its ghostly legends, and the second-rate Hollywood movie that was based on all the weird stuff that happened after the DeFeo murders back in 1974, scaring the living daylights out of the next family that moved in until, one night, they fled the house and never returned. No one would ever know what really happened.

Lee turned around in his seat to once again retell the tale, his voice hushed and mysterious, drawing out the words to build suspense. “So after the murders, the Lutz family moved in,” Lee began.

The boys had all heard it before, about as often as Green Eggs and Ham, but no one tried to Lee up. After all, it was his car and they were a long way from home. 

“I guess they got a bargain price,” Jude opined.

“Yeah, but after they moved in, all this sick stuff started happening,” Lee said. “Like, swarms of flies were everywhere, even in the winter. The father of the family used to wake up in a cold sweat every night at three fifteen — the exact same time of the murders. Green slime oozed from the walls. And one night they saw a demon’s face in the flames of the fireplace.”

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

Dad’s Fertilizer & the Mortification of Us All: A Father’s Day Tribute

Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.

It was a different time, a different generation.

Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.

I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?

From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.

I must have  been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.

My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.

And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.

My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.

There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.

These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father.  I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.

Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Here’s to you, old man. Cheers and memories.

Fan Mail Wednesday #106 (Friday Edition)

Here’s an easy one!

Hi, My name is Sheyanne and I live in Watseka, Illinois. I am in 5th grade, and I am doing a book report on The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow and one of the questions I have to answer is where did you attend school at in 5th grade? If you could answer my question I would be very thankful.
I replied:

Sheyanne, I attended St. Frances de Chantal Elementary School in Wantagh, New York, from grades 1-6. It was a Catholic school and we had to wear uniforms: dark green pants, white shirt, green tie. After sixth grade I transferred out early to attend public school and wear normal clothes.
It was better for the girls, though. They got to wear pink go-go boots with these really cool fringe leather vests that . . . no, not really. In fact, they wore ties, too. And high, thick green socks. Every girl in 5th grade had sweaty, itchy ankles. You need proof?
Here’s a photo of my 5th grade class with Sister Mary Edna. Count how many kids are in that picture: 23 boys, 18 girls. Yikes. There were no teacher’s aides in those days, just Sister Mary Edna and her strict rules and golden ruler.
Oh, what? Which one am I? Top shelf, fifth from the left. True story: One day we were on line to go to P.E. (in the auditorium, because we didn’t have a real gym, or a lunch room, btw). Anyway, Sister Mary Edna summoned me to her desk. She looked at me, slapped me across the face, and said, “Get a haircut!”
Guess what? I got a haircut.
Cheers,
JP
POSTSCRIPT: I heard back from Sheyanne and have to share her sweet reply:
thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love your books!!!!