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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Christmas on Woodland Avenue in the 50s

By Doug Knight, Avalon and Haddonfield

Woodland Avenue in Haddonfield, New Jersey, was about as happy a place for kids imaginable. And by the way, those of us lucky enough to live on Woodland Avenue pronounced it “Woodlyn,” not WoodLAND. It was a lovely, tree-lined street, one block from “the field,” which was a playground/ballpark for the non-stop games of b-ball, touch football, softball, and kick-the-can that I and my friends played regularly. It was also the site of Lizzie Haddon, the grade school we all attended.

I had a nickname of “Bugs,” like the cartoon character, because my two front teeth stuck out like the “wascally wabbit.” To this day, certain old friends still call me Bugs, although the orthodontist took care of the teeth long ago.

A small stream lingered just beyond the street and nestled into the woods directly behind my best friend Lee’s house. We always called it “the crick,” and it was great fun to gather in Lee’s backyard after a heavy rainstorm to watch the crick breach its muddy sides, carrying leaves, dirt, army men and plastic boats to an unknown end. A favorite thing Lee and I and friends would do was to hike along the crick, exploring the unknown landscape and having chance encounters with squirrels, chipmunks and other beasts of our imaginations. We all had the requisite Swiss Army Knife and a thermos of cold milk, along with PB&Js consisting of Jif peanut butter (never Peter Pan!). We would usually make it about a half mile before it was time to eat, not so much because we were hungry, but it just seemed a cool thing to do. We would sit facing each other on a sandy knoll, and discuss the many virtues of a well-made sandwich. Someone usually had a Tastykake for dessert and would dig into it without offering to share, but would finally split the last Krimpet or Tandy Cake among the rest of us.

Lee and his dad built a tree fort in their backyard. It was very well done, with two window areas, a door, and a flat roof that was hinged and could be opened to let in sun on nice days. A ladder allowed access to the fort. We figured we were up some 50 feet, but it was probably 20 feet off the ground. 

One day, while Lee’s parents were out, Lee and I pooled our firecrackers and were playing “Alamo,” tossing lit ladyfingers out the windows and over the roof, trying to stop the imagined bad guys from getting to us. We put together a “bomb,” with about 12 firecrackers in an envelope, set it on fire, and out the roof it went. Unfortunately, Lee’s dad was coming up the ladder to check on the commotion at the same time. The “bomb” either landed on him or very near, as a visibly shaken and angry man appeared at our door. The tree fort was off limits for two weeks. That was an eternity for a couple of 12-year-olds.

Dad always bought Buicks. He bought a 1958 Buick station wagon. It was painted brilliant silver and had an enormous chrome grille that shone like stars. The car looked as big as a train to me. Dad, always frugal, did not opt for an automatic transmission or power steering, so while Dad could maneuver the car, Mom, who was slender and petite, could barely turn the steering wheel. And the stick shift was a challenge for her, as well. I will never forget her trying to back out of the garage and how the Buick kept stalling.

Feeling very frustrated she exclaimed, “The rear engine needs to work better!” I was mystified. There was an engine in the back of the car? “Sure,” she said. “When I put it into reverse, the rear engine comes on and drives the wheels backward.” I tried to tell her there was no second engine, but I do not think she ever believed me. On a separate note, I once asked her how the TV weather man knew what the forecast was. She answered me that “He sees signs.” Oh … I remember thinking that God put huge billboards in the sky that said something like “It will rain on Tuesday” and these TV weather guys had very strong telescopes to read them. Guess that proves I am my mother’s son.

Christmas on Woodland Avenue was simply spectacular. The families all tried to outdo each other with lights and decorations. We had these huge orange lights about 4 inches long that Dad hung in various bushes just off our porch, and I remember thinking our front yard looked like the used car lot downtown. There were about a dozen kids aged 5 or 6 up to 12 who would go to each house and sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. The younger kids loved this, the 10-year-olds tolerated it, and the older kids were embarrassed to be out with the “little kids.” But the tradition was that you were drafted into the choir until you were 13. And in 1959, you did what your parents told you to do.

Choir practice was held a day or two before the traveling concert. A kind and perhaps hearing-challenged mother usually held the rehearsal, as other moms were not in the least bit interested in serving hot chocolate and marshmallows to a group of hyperventilating adolescents trying to outdo each other by screaming out “Silent Night.”

And when the big night came, and Santa Claus was in his sleigh waiting just over the boughs of the tall oak trees surrounding Lizzie Haddon, and your lungs hurt from blaring out “We Three Kings” so your parents could hear you at your house, and you and your basset hound were allowed to sleep in the warm bed with your mom and dad, and you looked out the window that was always cracked an inch or two, and you saw the orange Christmas lights that on Christmas Eve stayed on all night, and you were content, happy, safe and warm.

Knight writes from Avalon and Haddonfield.

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