The Sandpit

07 Aug

            I have a cousin who moved to Caribou, Maine. It's about as far north as you can go, without being in Canada. If you've ever been to Caribou, you know that it is a land of rolling hills, and wide, flat riverbeds. In some ways, it is very similar to what Bergen County must have looked like in its early days, because if you drive over to Summit Avenue in Hackensack, and find a spot where you can look toward the west and have a clear view of the horizon, you'll see the same kind of hills you would see in Caribou. It's hard to know that, driving around our roads here in New Jersey, because everything seems so flat.

            The same is true for Rochelle Park. If you go to the end of Thiem, you'll come to a spot overlooking Carlock Field. Standing at the end of Thiem, you can look across and see that it once continued on the other side of Carlock. In fact, that little stretch of road that ends with the rec building is also called Thiem. At one time, the two were obviously connected, although it could have been nothing more than a dirt road or a trail of some sort. Looking at Carlock field from any angle, it's obvious that it was once a gently sloping hill, like Chestnut, from the top of Thiem to what would be the bottom of the hill at the rec hall on the other side.

            When I was a kid, Carlock used to be called "the sandpit." I still remember playing on the steam shovel that was parked there, and looking for pollywogs in the shallow scoops of sand that filled with water when it rained in the spring. There were blackberry bushes at the base of the hill below Thiem, and the edge of the sandpit on the West Oldis Street side, was covered with what we called "scrub bushes," a thorny mess that nonetheless became a favorite place to play. Somehow, we managed to carve out cave-like spots in the brambles where we could chase rabbits, or use for hiding places, or simply sit and imagine ourselves in a different world. This was after most of the newer houses had been built on West Oldis, so the sandpit became a magnet for all of the kids in the neighborhood, including those we hadn't even met. It was created when route 17 was being built on the other side of town. A lot of the sand used to mix the concrete had been dug out of the hill connecting the two Thiems,  and by the time we began playing in it, the steam shovel had been abandoned, and became something to climb on and pretend driving.

            In the winter, the sandpit was the only place in town to do some serious sleigh-riding. The steam shovel had created two great hills. The most popular was the one off of Chestnut. It had a more gentle slope to it, and yet the ride down the hill was steep enough to carry a sled half-way across the pit. The second hill, just below Thiem, was a very sharp drop from top to bottom. Maybe that's why it was known as "suicide hill," because riding a sled down that one was like jumping off a cliff. There was nothing gentle about the slope, and anyone brave enough to try it experienced a very sudden and abrupt landing at the end of the ride.

            After my parents passed away, my sisters and I had the bittersweet task of sorting through some of the mementos and things they had left behind. I had remembered my mother teasing me about a note I had written when I was probably 9 or 10 years old. The note was written in pencil on a piece of shirt cardboard, about the size of today's printer paper. My father used to take his shirts to Topps Cleaners on Passaic Street, which no longer exists, and they would come back neatly starched and folded over a piece of grey cardboard. That is where we got the term. We saved the cardboard for crayons and assorted cut and glue projects, so it was probably the most handy thing I could find to scribble my note.

            "Went to the sandpit. I brang my mitt."

            I found that note tucked away in a box of assorted photos my parents had kept, along with cards my sisters and I had written to them over the years, or made ourselves, and it brought back memories of the day I had written it.

            It was the first day of Little League tryouts, around 1952. In anticipation of playing, my father had taken me to a sporting goods store in Clifton and bought me a catcher's mitt, and a bottle of neatsfoot oil. I remember pouring the oil on, and rubbing it in for weeks ahead of time, and playing catch with my father on the front lawn, wishing the weather was a lot warmer than it was.

            By the time the tryouts began, the steam shovel was gone, and a small backstop had been built at the southeast corner of the sandpit. It became the Little League field, and there were enough boys to go around to make up at least 4 teams that I remember, so everyone "made the team." I think it was the first time in Rochelle Park that a whole generation of boys proudly donned uniforms, provided by the Police Athletic League, or P.A.L. for short, and learned to play ball.

            The sandpit has changed over the years. The hills are ringed with concrete walls halfway down the slopes now, the sand has been covered with some form of synthetic turf, two new backstops were erected, and wire "safety fences" pretty much enclose the entire field. I don't know why the town thought it was necessary to  make it into something so unattractive. I miss the scrubbiness of the place. It was such a natural playground that every time it snows, and I look down from the top of Chestnut Street, I can't help but feel sorry for the newest generation of kids. They will never enjoy the days when every kid in town--or so it seemed--would show up at the sandpit to go sleigh riding down the best hills in town. 

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