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April 2006
Of Ham & Grapes

Readers, time to take you on another Huck Finn adventure, of sorts.

There were times when I spent one or two weeks during the summer visiting with the Cummings family who lived in West Caldwell, NJ. My mom was friends with Mrs. Cummings. They met when they were just teens growing up in Newark and spent time at the local "Y," both being of Italian heritage, coming to this country as young girls. My mom arrived here at the age of four.

I was in grammar school when I first started visiting the Cummings family and spending time with their son, Dean, who was a year or so younger than me. Back then in the late '50s West Caldwell was quite undeveloped -- so much so that a girl who lived three houses away kept a horse in her back yard. Now I really don't know how much property they had, it could have been an acre or more. I do know I spent time there. Since I worked at a pony track back in Newark I had an attraction not only to the horse but also to the cute young lady that owned it.

Keep in mind I was from Newark which was quite different from West Caldwell, especially the way we dressed. I remember driving with the Cummings family from West Caldwell to the Robert Hall flagship clothing store on Rt. 22 in Union, NJ. I watched in amazement the suits and jackets Dean tried on that his parents picked out for him. No way! Not for this Newark kid!

Dean and I fished the ponds on the Becker farm. We chased frogs and crayfish in the stream that ran through the patches of woods that surrounded the farm. We even jumped resting deer out of their beds on our excursions.

Of course all was not play. We had to do chores around the yard, which included mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, helping with the vegetable garden and the grape arbor with Mrs. Cummings supervising. We also had to vacuum the pool which didn't count as work since we spent a lot of time swimming in it.

The Cummings had great tomatoes in their garden, and sweet corn and green beans. We helped Mrs. Cummings make grape jelly with the grapes we picked from the arbor. Her Italian heritage lent itself to the wine making chores she shared with Mr. Cummings. Visions of the Lucy show? Nah! Actually I remember Mrs. Cummings being very straight forward and quite strict.

Now I'd like to tell you about the other adventures that Dean and I pursued. Both of our moms were in the drama club at the "Y" so I guess we were both "hams" at heart. I always seemed to have a part in school plays.

Dean and I would put our heads together and concoct some silly skits to perform for the neighborhood. Remember I was a budding "rock star" so I sometimes played my guitar in the skits. We also enlisted the assistance of one of the neighborhood boys and Douglas and Dean's younger sister, Janice.

On the right side of the house where the yard ended was a concrete wall about two feet high. The lawn was level right up to the wall and made a perfect stage. The neighbor next door allowed us to set up folding chairs on his lawn facing the stage.

Dean and I made tickets to sell for our skits from construction paper. If memory serves me correctly I believe we sold them for a quarter. Remember it was back in the late '50s. Believe it or not we usually filled all the chairs and had people sitting on blankets on the lawn. Sometimes there were over twenty people in the audience. Oh, let me not forget, Janice usually took care of the refreshments.

I'll tell you we pulled this off every summer, even after we both entered high school. Of course the productions became more involved and more professional. So be sure to come back next column for the finale!

by Lance L. Casper

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