Slaughter on Summit Avenue

Our children were raised in Montclair, New Jersey, a bedroom community twelve miles west of Manhattan. We lived in a modest house on a busy street which also served as a popular bus route to the city. Our lives changed when our middle daughter, Abby went to Pre-kindergarten at age four and befriended a little girl named Becky. Becky and her family lived on Summit Avenue.

Montclair was noted for its progressive magnet school system. It came about as an answer to forced busing for integration purposes, but soon became a model for other districts to follow. For our purposes, it allowed kids from the tonier Upper Montclair to intermix with kids from all over town. While Summit Avenue was not by any means a ritzy street, it was decidedly upper-middle class.

Becky’s parents were both medical doctors. Most of the friends we eventually met on Summit Avenue were professionals and many worked in the city, but the biggest thing that separated us was that many of the families had nannies. My wife and I were professionals (a lawyer and college professor) with three children, but we managed to shuffle along using more conventional daycare. The all-day Pre-kindergarten program in Montclair made the extremely high real estate taxes almost a bargain for us.

This was already past the time in America where kids could go out and play unsupervised. Any time we could squeeze in between games, practices, concerts, recitals, and rehearsals was reserved for play dates. A typical playdate would involve two or more parents poring over pages of calendars and to-do lists to find an appointment. One parent would drive to the other parent’s house and drop off their kid after, of course, checking the property for potential death threats or security breaches. Often, the visiting parent would hang out during the play date. This was often to protect from a late pick-up which might cause significant impact to future scheduled activities.

Summit Avenue was different. First of all, Becky’s family had a swimming pool. This made their house a much more popular destination during the summer. Also, Summit Avenue was populated by several families with 2 – 4 kids all in the same age range. The pool was at the end of the block and usually ended up being the type of suburban hangout that you only see in TV commercials. You would think that this would be unfair to Becky’s family, but it all worked out quite well for everyone.

First of all, the nannies were off on the weekend. There were typically six to fourteen parents around at any time to watch the kids. Also, everyone brought food, and I mean tons of food. One family packed an entire large wagon and wheeled it down the street filled with snacks and appetizers of all kinds. Some people brought pool toys, and some helped with pool maintenance. Some people manned the barbecue and some took care of the music selections.

My particular specialty was as camp counselor. As an educator, I preferred the company of children to adults. I spent most of my time in the pool playing with the kids and distracting them from conflict. The house was built on a slope. The pool was at the lowest point in the back of the house. Between the house and pool was a wide driveway in front of a garage and basement/rec room. To the right of the driveway, up a flight of wooden stairs, there was a large deck. Most of the cooking, eating, and all of the drinking took place on the deck which looked down upon the driveway twelve feet below. We had doctors for first aid, lawyers for conflict resolution, and plenty of others for general TLC.

Now that we have Facebook, I occasionally have an opportunity to see what these kids are up to today. The youngest of the group is graduating high school and most are already out of college and working as professionals themselves. While there is much to be proud of, my favorite thing is to compare them to my impressions of them as kids and how close my expectations of their future were.

I am leaving out any analysis of my own kids and will leave that to their own therapists, but for purposes of comparison, they are Lilly, the oldest of the entire crowd, Abby, who was best friends with Becky for much of the time we lived in Montclair, and our son James, who was at the younger end of the spectrum. I am also leaving out last names and specifics about the parents as it was the kids that brought us together.

Becky has a twin brother, Ben and a younger sister Rachel. A few doors up Summit Avenue were Kenneth, his brother Keith, and baby sister Grace. Next were Sean, Bobby, and Seton and next door to them were Laura, Jessie, and Kenyon. There were other semi-regulars from across the street including Callan and Griffin and Max. It was tough to keep track of the ages as some of the kids came from taller stock and some were smaller. Because of the magnet system, many neighbors went to different schools.

Kenneth was the kid who most deviated from my expectations. Kenneth was a savant regarding astronauts and dinosaurs. He was the sweetest kid with bright eyes and long eyelashes, the type you would expect from a deer in headlights. He played baseball in the same league as my son and just had the look of someone who would rather be reading a book than fielding a grounder. His brother Keith was all boy and was still playing baseball in college. Their sister Grace as a toddler frequently had a dirty face no pants. I’m pleased to see from her mother’s pictures that she lost the former and gained the latter. Their father is British and that has nothing to do with this story. The only significance of this is his heavy accent and the fact that my daughter Abby knew him for about a decade when she suddenly blurted out, “Mr. Blahblah is British!” For some reason, it took her ten years to notice what was obvious to everyone else.

We played with foam rubber noodles in the pool, and many of them had a hole in the middle. A common game was to have battles where you fill the noodle with water, point it at someone, and blow into the other end. This would send a jet of water in their direction. Kenneth tried for a few years to blast me, but would first call me to get me to look his way. He would point the noodle directly in my face and get ready to blow. In hindsight, I am not proud of this, but every time, and I mean every time when he opened his mouth to inhale, I would grab the other end and blow into it…hard. This would cause a stream of pool water not only to hit poor Kenneth in the face point blank, but also fly into his inhaling mouth. After a minute or two of choking, he would still have the sweetest smile and brightest eyes.

Later, I saw on Facebook that he joined ROTC. Being by far the most left wing member of the pool crew I immediately felt saddened. I thought for sure that Kenneth would be a scientist someday. But as the years went by, I saw more and more pictures of him as he continued his path in college. He is now a square-jawed leader of men who has achieved great things in his area. I’m proud to have him on my side and I hope I have a chance to apologize to him someday for blasting him in the face.

Laura, Jessie, and Kenyon are from Southern stock and were, and still are the most polite kids you could meet. They were tall beyond their years. They were the ones who began calling me “Mr. Bob” which has stuck to this day. Unfortunately, I once broke Kenyon. This was a rare mid-week visit to the pool. I picked up the three kids from their nanny, Miss Pam and walked down to the pool. As I was putting an inflatable “swimmie” on Kenyon’s arm, he yelped in pain. He couldn’t explain what was wrong so I brought him back to Miss Pam who said she knew what to do. It turns out that I had dislocated his elbow! After days of guilt, I found out that his grandmother had done this when he was a baby and that it was not an uncommon injury for him.

Becky devotes a tremendous amount of her time working with animals these days. This turned out to be a blessing as she could be confrontational with humans even as a child. Her brother Ben spent most of his time in the pool trying to take a running leap from the side or diving board onto a floating boogie board. This was the one thing that frightened me the most at the pool. His legs would shoot out from under him and his head would land in the water, usually less than twelve inches from the edge of the pool. Last year, he posted a video of himself surfing in California from his new GoPro. I guess he knew he’d find the balance all along.

The most memorable event from the pool days took place at a big gathering. There were about twenty kids in the pool and over a dozen parents preparing an epic barbecue. I brought from home a hundred balloons and spent some time filling them all with water and placing them in buckets. The parents above told the kids that we needed them all to gather in the driveway to take some pictures. Becky and Lilly took on the challenge of organizing everyone and getting the toddlers in position. This driveway full of smiling kids and sidewalk chalk suddenly became a box canyon.

On the count of three, all of the parents rained down on the kids with dozens of water balloons. There were screams and chaos. One of the parents videotaped the massacre. It was even better in slow motion. You can even see the looks change from surprise, to betrayal, to anger, and finally to revenge.

Eventually moves, divorces, and life in general put an end to the Summit Avenue pool. My wife represented Becky’s parents on the sale of their house. As if it were some great symbolic gesture of the Gods, there was a massive Nor’easter three days before the closing. The hill behind Summit Avenue became a torrent of flooding. The sewer backed up. My wife went to the house with the realtor to check for damage. She said she was in tears when she saw the basement toilet from the stairs. It was belching out raw sewage onto the floor, out of the door, across the driveway and into the pool. She said it looked like the Ganges. Sadly, nothing lasts forever. I hope that the current owners are having as much fun there as we did.

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