by Charles Freericks

On April 21, 1972, Apollo 16 was the fifth mission that landed on the Moon. I had never explored much further than the H-shaped cul-de-sacs of Cooper Place and Howard Court, bridged by the middle bar of Veraa Place and Hickory Avenue. Veraa Place and Hickory Avenue were actually the same road. Although the street was only 80 yards long, it had two names due to it being in two different towns (Paramus and Oradell). This identity-challenged little street connected Cooper to Howard, both of which were dead ends. I was allowed anywhere within those three streets... four if you went by the street signs.

At the end of the cul-de-sacs was the brook. It was there that I began to see the world and claim it as my own, unbeknownst to my mom, by co-leading neighborhood explorations with my best friends Cindy and Frankie Petrusauka. We took all the kids in the neighborhood, even though many of them were quite young. We were the Pied-Pipers of adventure.

We gathered a group of almost a dozen kids in the Howard cul-de-sac, across from the red house where President Richard Nixon had once come to a dinner party. John-John Lipinski and Tony Verrocchio stood guard, making sure that no parents were looking, as one by one, the rest of us climbed over the guardrail onto the steep bank of the brook. We headed north along the brook, with Cindy, Frankie and I, as the tour leaders, calling out the names we had given the landmarks along the banks. There was Hold Your Head Low, where thick branches, some with blackberries on them, came right up to the brook and made a canopy over it. There was The Tunnel, where the brook meandered under a bridge on River Dell Road. Then came The Houses, where the houses on Glenside Court East and Glenside Court West butted up to the bank. From there, we hit The Grass is Green, where we climbed up onto an unfenced open lawn for a free run all the way up to the last house before The Pipe. The Pipe was a pipe that carried the brook under Schaefer Avenue. This was the end of our run, as it was a dark pipe not much wider than any of us and as long as Schaefer Avenue was wide.

To the younger kids--my brother Jimmy, John-John, Tony, Alice Petrusauka, Lorry Libbie, Annie Verrocchio, Vickie Lipinski and even Robbie Verrocchio--the Pipe was the end of the known universe and no one would ever travel beyond it. But to Cindy, Frankie and me, The Pipe was the gateway to Schaefer Avenue. And if man was able to go beyond Earth’s orbit to the Moon, we were able to go beyond The Pipe.

All three of us were allowed, if we asked permission, to ride our bikes to the corner of Forest and Midland to visit the Mary Jane Sweet Shop, which was run by elderly Jack and Gladys Stone until they retired and sold the store to Jack Hanley (a wonderful grey-haired middle-aged man who may or may not have been running numbers). It was the size of a small living room, filled to the ceiling with boxes, and equipped with a full-service, three-stool soda-fountain counter. Cindy, Frankie and I decided that we would use our Mary-Jane-Sweet-Shop permission to go beyond The Pipe. But how? What to do?

I, unfortunately, have never been an idea man, and certainly was not then. I could do the “I’m thinking of ideas” pose and strut, making grimaces and shaking off good ideas with flaws... but I couldn’t actually think of any real ideas. Thank God Cindy was with us. Cindy, who at eleven already used the word “ironic”, ironically on the rest of us, who had no idea what it meant, came up with a brilliant plan.

Her idea was dazzling for its simplicity. What Cindy realized was that everyone called the Mary Jane Sweet Shop the candy store. When we asked permission to go, we asked if we could go to the candy store. Now, way off in the other direction, near where we thought Schaefer Avenue might lead us, was the dry cleaners on Kinderkamack Road. Next door to the dry cleaners was a small shop called The Sugar Bowl. The Sugar Bowl was a--now here’s the brilliant part--the Sugar Bowl was a candy store. We all went home and asked permission to ride our bikes to the candy store.

My mom said yes. I ran past the television in the living room, where astronauts John Young and Charles Duke cruised their LRV along the lunar surface. I climbed on my second-hand Schwinn, which had a banana seat to make it look like a Sting-Ray. I met Cindy and Frankie at the crack in the tar where Veraa turned into Hickory. The other kids in the neighborhood came out to see us off. We peddled up Howard Court, like we had a million times before, but when we reached Spring Valley Road, instead of making the swooping U-eee; we made right turns and headed north. There were real cars, really driving, on Spring Valley Road, so we rode on the sidewalk.

We passed over River Dell Road. I felt a lump in my throat. We passed over Glenside Court West when it hit me; this was real. We were already as far away from our homes as we had ever been on bikes. We rode past a long stretch of houses after Glenside before we reached Schaefer Avenue and turned right.

Schaefer was a quiet road, not unlike our own. In fact, it was part of the second subdivision that made up our neighborhood (it was this coming together of two subdivisions that caused the road I lived on to have two names). Schaefer began with a hill, like Howard, but instead of our usual abandon, we went down this hill, riding our brakes. Frankie and Cindy had them on their handlebars; I had mine on my pedals. Soon, we reached the brook.

It was a parallel universe. The houses were the same shapes as the houses on Howard Court, but they were in a different order and different colors. The sidewalks and the trees were the same, but different. I felt as if we had somehow stumbled into an episode of Night Gallery. Cindy said it was ironic that I felt that way on our first journey beyond the known neighborhood. We stood on the pavement, holding our bikes between our legs, looking down at The Pipe. We had just been down below only an hour earlier. It was as if we had come back to the same location through a time warp or a wormhole.

All three of us looked beyond to the see what lay at the end of Schaefer. It went on further than our sight. Three deep breaths were taken. Tacitly, we all understood we were moving on. We mounted our bikes and began to peddle east. It occurred to me that this was the beginning of a life of world travel.

We passed a house with overgrown weeds and piles of magazines and newspapers on the stoop. Cindy said it was pathetic. I asked her what pathetic meant and she said it was pathetic that I didn’t know. It was about then that we started to realize that Schaefer went on and on and on, and we all started to wonder if we could get home from its end. Panic set in. None of us wanted to be the first to turn back, but we were tired and scared and our peddling became slower and slower and slower. Where was Kinderkamack? Why hadn’t it appeared? Where was The Sugar Bowl?

Finally, we reached Prospect Avenue, and our shoulders all relaxed. We knew Prospect Avenue. Prospect Avenue was where the Oradell Elementary School was. We made left turns onto Prospect, riding up it until we reached Martin Avenue. There, we found ourselves on the top of the steepest hill any of us had ever seen. At the bottom, slightly to the left, through the trees, we could see the back of The Sugar Bowl and the dry cleaners. The roar of the busses on Kinderkamack made a foreign, city-like noise.

We turned onto the hill. All three of us lifted our feet off the pedals and let our bikes tear down Martin Avenue on their own momentum. Our hair flew. Our shirts went whoopa-whoopa-whoopa like a sailboat’s sails. Our eyes dried out until they hurt. We coasted into the parking lot behind the squat, brick building that housed five stores. We tore around the building and threw our bikes against the telephone pole outside the front door.

We had made it. We had gone where no man had gone before and had survived. We were the astronauts, pounding over lunar crests on our Schwinns. We were the founders of Kinderkamack Road and it was ours, ours, ours... We claimed it for the kids on our block.

We sauntered into The Sugar Bowl. Each of us was armed with a dollar. Cindy chose a wax-paper roll of Necco Wafers, crunchy flat disks of Heaven. She finished out her selection with a handful of Atomic Fireballs. Frankie picked out some waxed lips and Candy Buttons. Candy Buttons were glued to a piece of paper about the width of adding-machine roll. I enjoyed the taste of Candy Buttons, but had given them up years earlier for fear of ingesting glue. I grabbed a Bit-O-Honey bar, a few bubble gum cigars and two boxes of candy cigarettes. Cindy and Frankie paid first and headed back out to their bikes for the ride home.

After the woman behind the counter added up my purchases she turned to me and said, “$1.23.” I didn’t know that to do. To be honest, the idea that you would be allowed to put something back didn’t occur to me. I thought that once they added it up you were obligated to pay for it. I just stood there and stared at the lady. It was then that I heard a voice behind me say, “I’ll make up the difference for him.”

I knew never to take anything from strangers and this was an aggressive stranger, willing to buy me candy. Frightened out of my mind, I turned slowly, only to see standing behind me Mrs. Libbie from my street, Lorry and Brandon Libbie’s mom, with a load of dry cleaning slung over her back.

Oh God, why couldn’t it have been a stranger? I looked out the door for help. Frankie and Cindy were gone. All that was out there was my bike.

“Where’s your mom?” Mrs. Libbie asked. Honestly, not knowing what to do, I did the only thing I knew how to do when in trouble beyond all possible trouble; I pretended to have gone dumb and mute. It was the only arrow in my quiver. I stood there like an idiot and didn’t say a word, no matter what Mrs. Libbie or the woman behind the counter asked me. Mrs. Libbie paid my extra twenty-three cents, told me that my mom could pay her back and left. I took a deep breath, headed out to my bike and started peddling up the hill on Martin Avenue.

Frankie and Cindy were at the top, with tears in their eyes, wanting to know if Mrs. Libbie had seen them too and were we all in trouble, or was it just me. I told them it was just me, and their jaws relaxed. We rode home with the two of them whooping it up and wondering what horrible thing would befall me. When we passed the Libbies’ house, I saw their 1968 Pontiac Safari Wagon parked out front and knew Mrs. Libbie was home. I got to my house, opened the screen door and walked by my mom, who was watching the lunar exploration. I didn’t say a word or answer her question of why it took so long to go to the candy store... as I was still on dumb and mute mode. I hid in my room for the rest of the day.

Mrs. Libbie never did tell or ask for the twenty-three cents back. It guess it wasn’t important enough. But I didn’t know that then and I spent the next two weeks in mortal fear of the moment my mom found out. Eventually Cindy, Frankie, and I started to make daily trips to The Sugar Bowl, and we even become more adventurous, heading north on Kinderkamack itself to Smith’s Candy Store at the corner of busy Oradell Avenue.

And yet, ironically, we never did make it all the way down Schaefer, not that day, not any day. In fact, to this day, even though I’ve seen Paris, Rome, and London, I’ve never found out what is at the end of Schaefer. I have to say, that seems both ironic and a little pathetic.