We have a large maple tree in our backyard that has been there as far back as I can remember. It was the first tree I ever climbed, and one of my favorite places to play. In the summer, the trunk of the tree was always surrounded by toy tractors, steam shovels, and trucks. We used to build roadways and tunnels all around it, but at this time of year, what I remember most of all are the piles of leaves that we used to jump into from the rope swing that hung from the tree.
Looking out my window now, and thinking back to those days, I also remember when it was legal to burn leaves in Rochelle Park, and at least one or two times a year, usually in October, when it seemed like the whole town was covered with smoke. The smell of burning leaves always brings back memories like that.
One time, I went into the woods with my older sister, Elaine, and our next door neighbors, Don and Dicky Carter, to "roast" potatoes. We followed the path behind our house to a small clearing on the other side of "The First River," about half-way between West Oldis and Passaic Street, and built a small fire using dried leaves and twigs. As soon as the fire was going, we took out our potatoes, wrapped them in tin foil, and dropped them on the burning coals. We sat around for what seemed like an hour or more before we finally took them out and opened them up. The skins were black and hard, and much thicker than the potatoes our mother’s had made, but that didn't bother us. Someone--I think it was Donny—had brought a bar of butter, and passed it around, along with a salt shaker and a penknife. We cut our potatoes in half, covered them with butter, and poured on the salt, and by the time we finished eating them, our fingers and lips were covered with black soot. After washing our hands in the river, and drying them on our “dungarees,” as we used to call jeans, we were ready to go home, satisfied that we had found the secret to surviving in the woods.
Not only was it legal to burn leaves in the 50’s, but every year, the town held its annual Christmas tree burning. The townspeople would put their trees out on the curb, and the Boy Scouts and DPW workers would start collecting them in late December and early January, and pile them in a vacant lot across the street from the Corner Diner, where the ambulance building now sits. It was an event that every kid looked forward to, and a week or two before the actual bonfire, we all watched the pile grow steadily higher, until there were at least a hundred or more trees stacked in the lot. When the night came to light them, there would be as many bikes scattered around the lot as there were trees, and a large crowd of people would gather as a handful of men walked around the perimeter, lighting trees along the edge, and then stepping back quickly as the flames spread upward.
I don't know when the town stopped holding the Christmas tree burnings, but on one occasion, I was waiting inside the diner, trying to keep warm, when it started. I walked outside, and within minutes, the flames rose to a height of 50 feet or more. The heat was so intense that I could feel it from across the street, and the expression, “a roaring fire,” came to mind, because I could hear it above the excited crowd. It lit up the entire area, and as I looked around, I could see familiar faces and buildings that only moments before, had been hidden in the dark. It was an event that brought the whole town together, and as the flames began to die down, I went back into the diner, but could still feel the heat coming through the glass.
It's been a few weeks now since the old maple tree shed its leaves, and I've only half-heartedly gotten around to raking them into piles. I don’t plan to jump into them, and the old rope swing is gone, but now that the colder weather is here, stuffing them into bags and putting them out on the curb doesn't seem as much fun as burning them. It was something we looked forward to every year, like the coming holidays, and the great Christmas tree bonfire, and potatoes never tasted so good.