The Wayback, the Tree Monster, and American Cyanamid

Small Epiphanies: December 3

We had a wayback. We had a tree monster.  My cousins had American Cyanamid.

As a child, I never quite caught the name of the place, and in my imagination it became some sort of enchanted forest.

I don’t know what they did there when they were nine and ten and I was still only four or five, but it was something akin to the battles fought by the Pevensie kids against the White Witch in Narnia.

They got there through my cousin Richie’s backyard. Beyond the pens where my uncle raised collies, beyond the crab apple trees, on the other side of the pool, up and over a hill, out of sight.

Not that my cousins needed an enchanted forest to stage an adventure. They did just fine in Brooklyn, and in Wayne, and in Smithtown.

My cousins, in particular Joni, Jaci, Dave, Steve and Richie, were mythical creatures who existed on the slightly scary, definitely fascinating, lawless edges of my life as a little girl. Joni and Richie captured a goose and walked it home along Hamburg Turnpike. Richie, Dave and Steve put firecrackers in crab apples, lit the fuses and tossed them out over the road in front of the house. They teased “the publics,” the kids who went to public school instead of to Catholic school with them. They fell in creeks in the middle of winter and came home wet, half-frozen, gleeful and in big trouble.

When we got a little bit older, Dave and Richie would persuade Mike and Billy, who were much younger, to ring and run the long-suffering neighbors of my Pacanack Lake cousins during their Thanksgiving dinners, to steal light bulbs out of their lamp posts, to peek in their bay windows making scary faces, by telling the boys they’d be “real men” if they didn’t get caught. “You stay here and watch Adrienne and Kathy,” they’d say to me.

I wanted to be them, but they were always just beyond my reach, as audacious and elusive as the eighth graders seemed to my second-grade self on the school bus to St. Patrick’s–as those eighth graders seem to me, in some ways, still. It was enough, mostly, to be in their presence.

Our wayback is the open, weedy part of my parents’ backyard that comes after the patio, the lawn, and a tiny bit of forest–just enough trees that you can’t see the wayback from the house, so it always felt secret and secluded.

The tree monster was in Freddy Kranz’s backyard next door–an old tree trunk that fell on to another tree and was suspended that way for years. It was a neighborhood meeting place: something to climb on and build forts under. It was base for countless games of Manhunt on muggy summer nights swarming with buzzing mosquitos, and probably where my brother and his friends practiced smoking cigarettes stolen from their parents’ packs.

American Cyanamid, Joni told me during Cousins Weekend last month, was the name of the pharmaceutical company that owned the land behind my cousins’ house. I guess the space was a planned industrial park that never quite got finished. Turns out, American Cyanamid’s Wayne, NJ plant produced tetracycline and an oral polio vaccine in the 1950s, and its president’s name was William Bell. Maybe it was an parallel universe.

For me, American Cyanamid will always be something not-quite-real, just out of reach, more intriguing than anything going on in my real life, a world my cousins created that I could only ever aspire to.

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