December 8, 2010 at 9:50 pm (Uncategorized)

As long as I can remember fall has always been my favorite season. It’s a gorgeous time of year, what with the green leaves changing into a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues, and autumn flowers finally bursting into riotous bloom. It’s almost as if Mother Nature seeks to overwhelm us with a last explosion of color before finally drawing a frosty white veil across the landscape.

Lengthening shadows can lend a somewhat different look to crisp fall afternoons. There’s a touch of sadness in the air too, as many forms of life rush to leave the scene before the snows of winter inevitably overtake them. We humans refer to our later years as the “autumn of our days”, and for good reason. If spring represents nature’s rebirth, then surely fall is its long, slow journey to oblivion.

Today I felt a bit of a chill in the air for the first time this season. It brought back memories of all the wonderful things I was fortunate to experience in autumns long ago. I remember how I envied my cousin Natalie, who had a fireplace in her house across the street. Sometimes she’d invite me over when her dad, Uncle Bill Oliveri, lit the first fire of the fall. We’d sit quietly just watching the dancing flames and listening to the snap, pop, and hiss of the burning logs. It was mesmerizing, and there was no need for conversation.

I recall as a child raking leaves into large piles in the backyard. Sometimes we would jump into the mounds or even bury ourselves in them. Eventually we’d light the piles on fire – until that was banned by local ordinance. We would watch in awe as the leaves transformed quickly and furiously into plumes of curling white smoke, soaring orange sparks, and swirls of grey ash. I can still smell that pungent scent. Sometimes I’d even help our neighbor, Mr. Fyfe, (yes, that was really his name) rake his leaves just because I enjoyed burning them so much. Simple pleasures by modern standards, perhaps, but memorable nonetheless.

With the odor of burning leaves in the air, could Halloween be far behind? My second-favorite holiday next to Christmas, Halloween evokes so many wonderful memories. We always cut our pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern the night before, but never lit the candle in it until the next afternoon. There were parties to plan and cardboard skeletons to be hung. I must confess that I never had the knack for apple-bobbing. I always came closer to drowning than to actually snaring an apple. Oh well.

My friends and I began walking the neighborhood right after school, and we sometimes wouldn’t return home until 9 or 10pm. Halloween was much less commercial then. Usually we wore only rubber masks purchased at the 5&10 cent store, and warm jackets. We carried our goodies in brown paper sacks, and none of us ever said “Trick or Treat”. It was “Anything for Halloween?” People gave out cookies, muffins, bubble gum, and pieces of fruit with nickels pressed into them. Sometimes we would switch masks and go back a second time. Oh, we played an occasional harmless trick now and then when someone refused to answer the door, but there wasn’t much need for that sort of thing in those days.

And how about the World Series? The Fall Classic was played only in the daytime back then. The home team’s announcers called every game, unlike today. You knew it was special when you heard someone other than Mel Allen behind the mike. And it was usually Yankees and Dodgers, with the Yanks always prevailing, except once. I remember our grade school teachers would let us listen to the games on radio during class. Then we’d run home at 3 o’clock to catch the finish on an 18 inch black and white TV. Mickey, Yogi, Whitey, and the Moose. Duke, Campy, Jackie, and Scoonj. How great was that? Everyone in my family rooted for the Yankees except my father, who was a Giants fan for some strange reason.

In high school, Lawrence football games dominated every fall weekend. My friends including Richie Vicario, Donny Leone, and Joe Parlo, who are all gone now, would sit in a group at the top of the stands, rooting for our team and laughing uproariously when the band played slightly off-key. We usually won, but in the instances when we didn’t, the final gun often precipitated a wild brawl. Oddly, no one ever seemed to get hurt. Afterward we’d meet at White Castle to devour mountains of 5 cent hamburgers. Today, try as I might, I can’t seem to down more than three of those “belly bombs”! And, needless to say, they no longer cost just a nickel.

Richie and I looked forward to the fall for another reason. The new TV season began in September. Our favorite program was “Shock Theater”, a show that went on at 11pm on Friday featuring some nut named “Zacherley”, who dressed as a ghoul and played cheesy horror movies. Zack, as we called him, had a wife named Isabelle and an assistant, Igor who were never seen. Another assistant named Gasport hung motionless from the rafters inside a burlap sack.

Richie would come over on Friday evenings and we’d watch Zacherley together. Sometimes my father would join us and we’d roar at Zack’s wild antics. He had a talent for cutting into scenes from movies like “Frankenstein’s Ghost” or “The Mummy’s Tomb” at critical moments and doing something ridiculous. We loved it! Even today, the first days of autumn still trigger zany memories of my old friend (fiend?) Zacherley.

Finally, signaling the end of fall to me was Thanksgiving. Always at my grandmother Bevilacqua’s, and always with a large segment of the family in attendance. Often I scarcely recognized some of the relatives. The dining room table opened up to accommodate probably two dozen people. I smiled proudly when I was finally invited to sit with the adults, and then laughed rudely at my sisters, who remained banished to the children’s table. The menu was always the same – lasagna followed by turkey and roast beef. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it was, and that’s the way we wanted it.

Much of that family exists only in the recesses of my mind now. But the first crisp breath of autumn always triggers many warm visions of years gone by. I think fall stands out in my memory from the other seasons partly because it’s such a beautiful time of year. I wonder if people today appreciate autumn as much as we did when the world was a simpler place. It’s still there, and in glorious full color, if only one would just take the time to look at it.

For me, at least, fall always conjures up both joyous and melancholy memories of lost youth and lost family. I suppose in many ways that’s the essence of autumn: recalling happy experiences that can never be reclaimed while trying desperately to create new ones as the calendar ruthlessly counts down our remaining time. Yes, fall is a beautiful season, but with a tinge of sadness to it. No one understands that better than those like me who have reached their “autumn years”.


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