Detour to the Past

The mailbox beside our old driveway still bears the family name. And I helped transplant that big evergreen, which one year had been our Christmas tree.

After spending my birthday weekend back home at Plum Island, I drove back to Annapolis on Monday. Perhaps thanks to an overnight snowstorm (we had six inches or so on the island; 10 or so in town), traffic was light and I enjoyed one of the easier Newburyport-to-Annapolis drives I’ve ever had.

Given the quick time I was making, I opted to cross Connecticut on I-84 and then head south to Westchester County before crossing the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee Bridge. This monstrous engineering marvel was a prominent part of my youth and I wanted to see the new version that had opened recently.

And an impressive new marvel it is. If you’re at all into big projects, I encourage you to check this bridge out. Very, very cool.

Another reason for taking this detour was so I could once again swing through the old neighborhood in which I grew up. Yes, it’s true: a large chunk of my youth was spent in Orangeburg, N.Y., on the western shore of the Hudson and just south of the T.Z. Bridge.

My father had settled in the area after returning from World War II. At the time, it was known as Shanks Village, formerly Camp Shanks, through which he had both embarked for the European campaign and returned to the States. After graduating from Dartmouth, he went to Columbia Journalism School on the G.I. Bill and lived in Shanks Village with his first wife. Then he and a handful of other men in the area bought a bunch of land near Shanks Village at the base of Clausland Mountain, and that’s where they built the neighborhood where I spent the majority of the first 14 or so years of my life.

I drove up the hill I’d trudged up and down to and from the school bus for a lot of years and realized a few things. One, it really was a great sledding hill (back when the area had real winters). And two, the forest behind my house was a really great place to wander as a kid.

Anyway, I parked at the top of the hill (known to us as “The T”) and looked up at my old house — a house my father had built. It was the same shade of red, and it was surrounded by huge evergreens that had been Christmas trees that we then transplanted outside. One tree in particular was a good 70, 80 feet high, and I had helped plant it. That felt kinda cool.

And finally, the name on what had been our mailbox still says “Smith.” I don’t know if the the current residents share our all-too-common last name, but I thought it was pretty cool that in a neighborhood built by Gene Smith, along with the Gwilliams, the Thompsons, the Lunds, the Landreths, the Ulrichs and others, at least one original name remained.

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