I grew up in northern New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, graced with the big-city extras that location entails. I thought all kids got to see Broadway plays, peruse exhibits at the Museum of Natural History , and eat at fabulous restaurants in Little Italy. It wasn’t until I attended college that I discovered other places in the country were … different.
“Let’s go to the city,” a friend said one weekend.
So we hoped in the car and headed for Cincinnati. Upon my arrival at the spot where the Ohio and Licking rivers meet, I said, “So where’s the city?”
However, it’s not as if I was completely unfamiliar with the rural world. In fact, in the summer, my parents would load me and my two siblings into the station wagon for what my father once referred to as “the goddamned family vacation.”
Our destination? My grandparents farm in Zanesville, Ohio. While they had not lived full time on those 325 hilly acres since the Great Depression, they would spend their summers at that broken-down house where my grandmother tended a large kitchen garden and my grandfather did his Green Acres bit, playing at being a farmer, riding around on a tractor and telling us to keep away from the bull, since one did not want to make the big guy mad.
Even though we were avid campers, this change of venue was astonishing for us suburban kids. There was no plumbing at the farm. We pumped water from a well that stood in the yard. There were no toilets. One had to trek over the hill where an outhouse provided a splintery seat where one might hear strange creatures scrabbling about underneath. And, because no one wanted to make that trek in the dark, we sometimes resorted to a quaint tin pot that rested under the bed. Baths were in a big metal tub that we lugged into the kitchen. A black, pot-bellied stove had a prominent spot in the living room. You could not step anywhere in that old farm house without hearing floorboards groan. The front porch sagged, proof the dwelling’s best days had long since passed.
But what the farm lacked in amenities, it made up for with untamed beauty. Much of the land was forest, though there were fields that were rented to local cattle ranchers, where placid cows spent their days on pretty hillsides. There was a stream and ponds where my dad taught us to fish, showing us how to bait a hook and gently remove our sunfish from the line before returning them to their watery world. I saw my first quails perched on fenceposts, swimming copperheads, and a massive snapping turtle whose jaws were as big as my fist.
Some farm kids lived down the road and my brother, sister, and I found their accents peculiar. (In hindsight, I wonder what they thought of our New Jersey diction.) They let us ride their horse. All these years later, I still remember them laughing hysterically when said beast bolted with me on board, giving me a permanently bruised tailbone to remember them by.
All along the fence wild blackberries and raspberries boasted masses of sweet fruit. One day, I stuffed my pockets with those berries and – just for the joy of it – I ran up the hill to the house. On the way, I tripped and splatted on that one-lane road where the rare passage of a vehicle prompted people to stop what they were doing and wave. When I stood, all those smashed berries oozed from my pockets like jam.
After a week, my parents would pack us in the car and head back to Jersey. I’d watch the old farm house disappear and the one-lane road vanish between the hills. All the way home my siblings and I squabbled in the back of the station wagon, too far away for our parents to swat for misbehaving. While my dad loved the farm, I know it was the one-thousand-mile round trip to that old house that earned our yearly trek the title “the goddamned family vacation”.
Blank Slate Press/Amphorae Publishing Group
Price: $16.95 Paperback, $9.99 eBook
As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.