The Paper Drive

03 Aug

            I have lived in a lot of places over the years, and one of my favorites was Dorset, Vermont, just outside of Manchester. Except for the mountains, which in Vermont can rise above 3000 feet, it has a lot in common with the rural atmosphere of Rochelle Park in the 50's. I lived in an old farmhouse, set back off the road, and whenever I had the time to go hiking, I would grab my pack and head out the back door and relive the sights and sounds of my childhood by wandering through the woods behind the house.

            One summer, I worked at a place called Merck Forest, which is a sprawling land preserve in the mountains west of Dorset. They say that Merck bought the land to keep it from being developed, and that the dirt roads and trails that run through the hills today are just the way they were when the land was farmed years ago. My job was to keep the trails cleared, and to oversee the maintenance of the wooded areas, especially a beautiful stand of aspen which was in constant need of being thinned and protected from undergrowth.

            Merck Forest was also used as an educational area. During the spring and early fall, kids would be bused in from various school districts to tour the land and and get a taste of what it was like to live in Vermont in the 1800's. The main building was a large barn which was used to house a tractor and assorted farm tools, but also acted as a stable for two very huge Belgian work horses. Since the general theme of Merck was "life without electricity, or modern equipment," the Belgian's played a big part in what I was required to do with the aspens. 

            After thinning the trees with a chain saw before the kids arrived, I cut them into 8-foot logs to be hauled back to the barn, so they could be cut up later for firewood.

            A few college students lived at Merck full-time during the summer as part of their studies, and one of the girls was in charge of the Belgian's. It was her job to bring them out of the stalls, hook them up to an old wooden sled, and bring them down to the aspen grove so I could load up the logs and let the horses pull them back to the barn. We weren't allowed to use the tractor, or drive my old pick-up across the field, but it was worth it just to watch the horses work.

            At the end of the summer, the college students and I were asked to harvest a hay field at the north end of the forest. This wasn't for educational purposes, so we were allowed to drive the tractor and pull a very tall hay wagon behind it. As we neared the end of the first load, stacking the hay bails became a problem, since the ones on the wagon were piled higher than any of us could reach. There was a lot of joking and laughter as we tried tossing them up, only to have them fall back down again, and no matter how hard we tried to keep them stacked as neatly as possible, we weren't having any luck.

            It didn't occur to me then, but there was something very familiar about that scene.

            In Rochelle Park, back before "recyclables" became a household word, and special days were designated for the town crew to come around and pick up old appliances, tv's, newspapers, and anything else that wasn’t "regular garbage," there was the paper drive. It was sponsored by the American Legion, and as I understand it, the purpose of the drive was to sell the paper for scrap and donate the money to the Legion.

            When we were kids, we never knew when the paper drive was coming. Someone said it was the first or second Sunday of each month, but in the summertime, we lost track of the days until, like magic, a tall stake truck would appear at the top of West Oldis. It was surrounded by a handful of veterans from the American Legion, and on the roof of the truck was a large pair of twin loudspeakers. The driver, or someone else in the cab, made the announcement, "Paper drive. Paper drive. American Legion paper drive. Please put your papers on the curb."

            The truck would start down West Oldis, going very slowly to give the men time to toss up the tied bundles of newspapers to those in the back, who would stack them in perfectly neat piles between the rails. Neighbors came out to the sidewalk and started talking to one another, waving to the men on the truck, or shaking hands with those on the street, while the men in the cab piped music through the loudspeakers between announcements. Every kid on the block quick enough to get out of bed that morning would come out to follow alongside the truck, all the way to the Legion hall, with most of us running ahead to see if there were any neat magazines to grab before the truck got there. As the music played, and the men made their way down the street, it was like a small parade in a very rural town.      

            It took me a while to realize it, but walking behind an old wagon, and tossing up bales of hay in Vermont, had brought back the memory of a very special summer event that took place once a month in Rochelle Park over 50 years ago.

* The email will not be published on the website.