When I was in the fourth grade, I won first prize in a poster contest. It was a school-sanctioned contest, scheduled as part of the Earth Day festivities in 1971. (This was the second Earth Day, after the previous year’s inaugural event.) Entries in the contest were supposed to address some aspect of our relationship to the environment. My entry depicted a big grinning man sitting on a squarish vehicle bristling with round, spinning saw blades. He was chopping down trees, while people in the middle distance clasped their heads in their hands beneath a big speech balloon with a single word (NOOOOO!!!) in it. Behind the vehicle in the far distance, there was a building with a big sign over it. “Tree Museum.” My entry was drawn up and submitted on a big stiff paper sheet of what we used to call “oaktag.”
This is the kind of thing you worried about, if you were eight years old in 1971 and living in Little Ferry, NJ, a little one-square-mile postage stamp of a borough on the Hackensack River. Why were people chopping down all the trees when we were running out of trees? It didn’t seem to register with us that trees were all over the damned place outside our classroom windows, just like they’d always been. If the Lorax and Joni Mitchell (from whom I swiped the notion of “Tree Museum”) said we were running out of trees, we were running out of trees. (In my fourth-grade class, we also worried a lot about the insidious evils of drug abuse. We were shown several of the sensationalistic marijuana and LSD “scare” films that were making the rounds in those days.)
I’ve been back to Little Ferry, recently. My second visit since my family moved away in 1972. The Wilson School is long gone, torn down in 1981 or so. That stolid two-story rectangle of dark red brick and high narrow windows (surrounded by a fenced-in acre of crumbly blacktop) has been replaced by a little condominium village well-provided with plenty of shade trees.
The lake across the street is still there, though. Little Ferry has three lakes—Willow Lake, Indian Lake, and a fairly large body of water at the end of Mehrhof Road which seems to have no name at all. None of them are natural formations. They all began as clay excavation pits associated with the brickyards that flourished in Little Ferry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Willow Lake, the lake across from Wilson School, was always the least “lake looking” of the three. Its shores were barren dirt, and it always looked like a round pit with brown water in it. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence and was deemed off-limits to us. In fact, it was so off limits that I can’t recall anyone ever going near it. There was always talk among us kids that Willow Lake was going to be filled in and replaced with something grand—an amusement park, a horse farm, ballfields.
It’s still there, though, and now looks more like a real lake than ever. Trees and sturdy undergrowth have crowded right to the water line. Busy flocks of ducks were paddling this way and that across its surface. Egrets were stalking the shallows, snapping food (whatever it is that egrets eat) out of water that now seems a perfectly robust slatey-green. The chain-link fence is gone. Nature repairs itself, if you give it the least opportunity.
First prize in that poster contest was an AM transistor radio. A little heavy rectangle of beige plastic with two ridged wheels set into its side (one for on-off/volume, one for tuning). You rotated the tuning wheel and a little orange indicator line prowled across a tiny window hashed in the denominations of the AM radio band. I dialed that little line over to Music Radio 77 WABC (home of Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison, and the Weekly Music Survey), and left it there until the day, a few weeks later, when the radio got jostled off the second-floor porch railing of the apartment house my family lived in. Then as now, the returns on investment for creative endeavor were pretty meager.
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