Landscapes of Memory and Meaning

*** Apologies – NJ.Com took down all the photos from their website. This post was originally published at NJ.Com on my “NJ Voices” column. I was able to save the text, but not the photos. What assholes. (I left the captions where the photos were.)

Historic Old Dutch Church and Sleepy Hollow cemetery. This is the place where Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman, haunted folks.

They say you can’t go home – but this picture essay of home town landscapes that shaped my life suggests otherwise. A Falkner character once said that the “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” The more I reflect on my own past and the wonderful 1960’s period of limitless possibilities, the more saddened I become about the collapse of our democracy, the endless Bush war, the escalating war on the natural environment, and our seeming inability to learn from recent history.

Come join me on this tour – where landscapes, architecture, mystery, memory, institutions, politics, and meaning are one.

This is my home – a place called “Glenville”, a small working class neighborhood just outside of the historic Hudson River town of Tarrytown, NY. My mom grew up here. Her dad was living there raising chickens (and dying at home) at the time we moved in 1962 when I was 5. It was a move “to the country” from Yonkers, where I was born.

We lived directly (50 feet) behind the Glenville firehouse – the siren was so loud it literally knocked me out of bed! As kids, we had a blast playing on the antique fire engine while the adults played cards, tossed horseshoes, and drank beer. Of course, there were regular clam bakes, softball games, Bingo, and carnivals.

Glenville sat in a valley just below hilltop Axe Castle and Hackley prep school. Axe was a real castle – the gargoyles were mysterious and terrifying – more so than that scene from the Wizard of Oz where the flying monkeys kidnap Dorothy. We would explore the woods around the castle and evade the British troops that guarded it.

The Hackley school campus provided endless woods and athletic fields. I spent countless hours rambling in those woods and playing on those fields. The school’s architecture, prep school atmosphere, and discipline of the Athletic Director Mr. Picket who was a mentor and father figure, made a huge impact on me. I deeply resented the wealth and snobbish elitism of the kids, but I was jealous of their opportunity and the quality faculty, coaches, and facilities.

I fell in love with my fisrt grade teacher, Ms. Vera Vradenberg. She was beautiful and a friend of Charles Schultz – we had Snoopy everywhere in our classroom. She instilled a love of learning – I would do anything to impress her, so of course I finished all my reading “SRA workbooks” before most kids even got started and got gold stars and Snoopy smiles. She cried talking about the assassination of President Kennedy – I had never seen an adult cry before then.

Tappan Hill school overlooked the Hudson River – views of the newly built Tappan Zee Bridge were stunning – and nearby Marymount College Campus. 15 years later, I met my first real love who attended Marymount. Don’t tell the nuns, but we made love in that dome – and I’ll be damned, just like the sappy Dan Fogelberg song, she really did marry her an architect who “keeps her warm and safe and dry”. I don’t know if she would agree with the rest of the Folgelberg lyric: “She would have liked to say she loved the man. But she didn’t like to lie.

I always feared we would meet in a scene from Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” – words that still sting:

There was not much more for us to talk about,
Whatever we had once was gone.
So I turned my cab into the driveway,
Past the gate and the fine trimmed lawns.
And she said we must get together,
But I knew it’d never be arranged.
And she handed me twenty dollars,
For a two fifty fare, she said,
“Harry, keep the change.”

Tappan Zee bridge crosses the Hudson River at Tarrytown.That bridge would have huge land use and environmental impacts on the region.

I went to 3rd & 4th grade at Pierson School. Every day we were reminded by that WWI statue on the front lawn that war was hell –note that the soldier’s head is bowed, exactly the opposite demeanor and message of our current “bring it on” “Commander in Chief” permanent war culture. But seeing a statute of a soldier at school wasn’t the only place we learned that war is hell. LBJ had just sent troops to Vietnam – my best friend’s cousin Frankie served there. When he came back, us kids couldn’t figure out why he would sit on the stoop all day nodding off and drooling, but we sensed that something was badly wrong that he never spoke about (he returned from the war a heroin junkie). “Urban renewal” demolition tore out a core of the housing and small businesses in our town, and the place just never recovered. Later that year, we were on our family’s annual vacation pilgrimage to Lake George when I watched national TV coverage of the Chicago police beat hell out of kids protesting the war at the Democratic Convention. I never really came to closure with my mom on her support of Hubert Humphry and I never forgot about police violence or the importance of protest and dissent.

The Pierson school was next door to a protestant church, whose bells were a daily reminder of history and religion. Although I attended (and hated going to) the local Roman Catholic church, unlike our current right wing cultural warriors, religion was never a source of arrogance, hatred, intolerance, or conflict. Peace, compassion, love, respect, individual human dignity, and tolerance were stressed.

Pierson School was right downtown – Almost every Saturday, after going either to the library to hear readings of the tales of Washington Irving or to the YMCA for swimming or basketball, we would go to the Music Hall to see a movie. Rip Van Winkle, Natti Bumpo, Leatherstocking, Tom Sawyer – these were our heroes. It was a wonderful small town Main Street experience – Roy’s deli provided lunch (Roy’s son was the HS football coach). Candy came from Whelan’s, a family owned drug store, and real ice cream sodas and milkshakes were served at “Pinkies”. I opened my first bank account, which received a small share of my weekly paper boy’s pay. I grew up in what we now call “Smart Growth”, but we can’t begin to imitate it because the politics, culture, and economy that supported that scene have been lost. As a result, we are now building Potemkin Places. Architecture and planning have severe limitations and are critically dependent on culture, politics, and economics. Although ironically my mom worked for architect’s and prominent tweed jacketed pipe smoking city planners I was just dying to emulate (Raymond, Parish & Pine), this is something I would learn many years later studying regional planning in graduate school at Cornell.

But Main Street wasn’t all fun and games – this building – now a chinese restaurant for the upscale – used to be a cleaners. My grandmother used to work there pressing shirts. Overworked to exhaustion, she passed out at her press, shattered her kneecap, and was permanently disabled.

For 5th-6th grades, we headed to North Tarrytown (recently renamed by status conscious residents as “Sleepy Hollow”) for WL Morse School. My horizons were literally expanded. Morse was located on Beekman Avenue, the main thoroughfare that led to the (now closed) GM auto plant. It had a working class and urban culturally diverse feel. There was no grass on the school grounds. Other languages were spoken within earshot. Cars full of GM workers double parked while visiting the many bars and liquor stores. We could sneak out at lunchtime and eat real pizza in a family owned joint right across the street from the school (thankfully, it is still there).

On the school bus ride to Morse school, we passed the Board of Education building (my mom was school board member and president for many years) and the statue at the site where Revolutionary War spy and traitor Major Andre’ was captured. We were spoon fed the myths of the revolution – no Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the US”, views of the anti-federalists, Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers disclosures, or Noam Chomsky books were available to us at that time.

Tarrytown Board of Education building. Many nights of my youth were spent there attending Board meetings, because mom couldn’t afford a baby sitter. Gave me a chance to do my homework and experience real democracy and local politics.

Major Andre taught us about loyalty and treachery – and the price we pay!

At Washington Irving Junior HS, we had teachers who opposed the war and smoked pot! We all left school to protest on the first Earth Day – teachers and students together! I can still remember my biology teacher (Ms. McCarthy) who turned me on to science, and the social studies class where we spent virtually the entire year on “critical thinking skills” and how to interrogate illegitimate arguments or unjust exercises of power and authority. Could you imagine that being taught in 7th grade today?

Washington Irving Junior High School

In Sleepy Hollow HS, I was a nerd (National Merit Scholar, AP and honors classes), a hippie and a jock. Earned 11 (out of a possible 12) varsity letters (soccer (3); hockey (3); golf (4), All County Hockey 1973-74 and 74-75)  and had a pony tail almost down to my butt (spring Junior year and all Senior year). The only academic work I still recall was my 11 and 12th grade english teacher (Peg Warren), who turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut and en entire realm of literature and writing on science, technology and society that still interests me today. Thank goodness for GOOD TEACHERS!

Sleepy Hollow High School

Use your imagination for the rest of the pictures – this is stuff you don’t tell your HS age kids about.

“Rockwood” – now Rockefeller State Park

Tarrytown Boat Club

“The Eagle”


Making friends at Rockwood

  1. byramaniac
    June 7th, 2008 at 19:44 | #1

    Wolfe! Wonderful nostalgia trip – great learning a little about what makes you tick…your commentary brought back similar memories of my Midwest upbringing. Thanks!
    I will die by a river as it rolls away
    Bury me in the nighttime…do not waste the day
    High above the waters that roll on to the sea
    All the angels in heaven will laugh at me
    They will laugh at me….they will laugh at me
    They will laugh at me
    My life was naught but a river rolling through my brain
    Made of so many teardrops…made of so much pain
    –Dan Fogelberg

  2. nohesitation
    June 7th, 2008 at 20:12 | #2

    Thanks Scott – because I am dependent on current pictures, I can’t post pictures of all the wonderful woods I rambled as a kid.
    There used to be unbroken forest for 3 miles behind Hackley to the Saw Mill Rover parkway – a product of Robert Moses’ regional visions with design elements from Benton Mackaye and the Blue Ridge Highway
    Most of those places are now corporate office parks, condo’s and luxury homes.
    Axe Castle is now a luxury hotel and conference center.
    Hackley school clear cut forests to build sports fields adn more buildings and parking lots.
    A huge chemical facility paved hundreds of acres of woods (it used to be called Technicon Research Center)
    I have pictures but they just depress me too much to post.
    So much of the landscape of my youth is gone.
    I think there is a direct relationship between this corporate driven landscape destruction and the current right wing politics and culture.
    I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up in the belly of the corporate suburban beast – Westchester County.
    The Clinton;s live right up the road –
    And my grandfather was a caretaker at the Rockefeller property in Pocantico Hills.

  3. isbjorn1
    June 8th, 2008 at 18:32 | #3

    Wonderful, Bill. Thanks!
    Reminds me of my upbringing in the Napa Valley–so betw/you & Scott & me we covered the country, at about the same time (tho I’m a few–but only a few!–years older than both of you).
    Although I, too, hated the Catholic Church, I’ll be forever grateful to the Dominican nuns who taught us not only tolerance, but that Jews and Muslims were our cousins and descended from the same forebears. They also taught us the importance of justice, as well as peace, equal rights (the civil rights movement was just beginning), helping the poor (yeah, there may have been a bit of unconscious condescension in that), and being open to diversity.
    The importance of biodiversity was impressed upon me at a very young age by the countryside around us, not yet overtaken by field upon field of grape vines.
    Later, in a Catholic boarding school, also taught by Dominican nuns, I asked if I could visit Joan Baez’s school near mine in the Carmel Valley as a part of my senior thesis. Because of everything the nuns in grammar school in Napa & later in boarding school in Monterey had taught us about the importance of being open to new ideas, evaluating them carefully, and thinking critically, it didn’t occur to me that they’d deny my request. But they did. The mother superior’s reasoning: “those people out there don’t just read Buddhism [sin enough, I guess], they smoke pot and protest the war!”
    Little did the nuns know that I was sneaking off campus by lying on the floor of a day-student friend’s MG to do all those things anyway–fueled by their teachings about the importance of openness, compassion, and justice.
    I hope people read this wonderful journey back into your youth, and take home with them the importance of education. As one of your critics said a few weeks ago (as if it were a negative thing), you are (or did he say “you think you are”?) the smartest kid in the room, and probably often you are. You replied to this critic that you’ve told your son there’s no shame in that, that he should be proud to be “the smartest kid in the room.”
    It’s been fun joining you on the road that led to your saying this so boldly to your son.
    Late last fall, I read a great article by Joseph Stiglitz in Vanity Fair, “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush “( in which he mentioned the importance of education for the future of the US. Of course, lack of true educational standards in the US (not the faux “no child left behind” BS) has been blogged about, commented about, etc., everywhere, but somehow reading your piece describing some high points of your education, and the few mentions of its centrality to the future of the U.S. in Stiglitz’s article have hit home more than all of these.
    Thanks again for the cinematic trip through small-town America, as it once was–and maybe could be again (w/a little more racial diversity this time!).

  4. isbjorn1
    June 8th, 2008 at 19:03 | #4

    so glad you mentioned this:
    “I grew up in what we now call ‘Smart Growth,’ but we can’t begin to imitate it because the politics, culture, and economy that supported that scene have been lost.”
    just because the mindsets and economy that supported this scene have been lost, doesn’t mean we can’t struggle to recapture them, does it? on even a higher level, maybe?
    isn’t the attempt to find where they are hiding (for they cannot be lost entirely or forever), to push ourselves and others to awareness exactly what you are doing everytime you put your fingers to the keyboard, snap a photo, or speak at a hearing?
    kudos to you for your synthetic mind and the elasticity of your program–for not being afraid to post stories and art as well as political screeds and complicated, information-packed articles.

  5. jkelle
    April 8th, 2009 at 19:33 | #5

    Billy ,loved the writing who would have thought you’d become such a historian,very acurate acount of our hometown,I just dont remember the pony tail almost to your but.
    Jim K

  6. nohesitation
    April 8th, 2009 at 21:12 | #6

    Hey Jimbo – Wolfe here
    Check out your 1975 senior year yearbook – first couple of pages that’s me in color photo (same page as you, if memory serves me) and my pony tail is depicted.
    Maybe not down to my butt – but there’s a couple of other photo’s in that yearbook that give a side angle view (hockey page – and senior superlatives).
    Ironic that you caught me in a slight exaggeration! Because you were the one who tended to tell some stretchers, dude!!!
    Sneakin’ Sally down the alley….

  7. nohesitation
    April 8th, 2009 at 21:17 | #7

    Jimbo – one more tale I must tell:
    One night (around 1978) in a Pleasantville bar (forget the name, irish, I think. The place where the NY Giants used to hang out. I can still picture Larry Czonka in the window seat) you managed to give me the courage to talk to a beautiful Marymount girl.
    Best advice I ever took – ended up fooling around and falling in love with her.
    Thanks, pal.
    I remember this stuff, just like yesterday. But I bet you don’t!

  1. November 21st, 2009 at 02:16 | #1
  2. October 18th, 2010 at 15:40 | #2
  3. December 19th, 2010 at 14:15 | #3
  4. August 27th, 2011 at 17:27 | #4
  5. November 6th, 2011 at 20:16 | #5
  6. December 3rd, 2011 at 18:29 | #6
  7. October 3rd, 2012 at 19:40 | #7
  8. April 28th, 2015 at 00:43 | #8
  9. June 12th, 2015 at 15:56 | #9
  10. August 9th, 2016 at 22:00 | #10
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