Orchard Street was a community of kids in the summers of my youth — much more so than today, it seems, as I walk slowly up the street with Brandon pulling at the leash. The street is the same, though in many places the big slates that served as our sidewalks have been removed, inviting us to walk in the street rather than in someone’s yard.
I look at the houses as we walk and I tick off the names of the families that lived there when I was a kid …
• • •
DeGraw, Myers, Nixon, Dougherty, Herman, Dimmick, Bullivant, DeLong, Wilson — the names just seem to roll through my mind — each home a family, with kids like me that grew up on Orchard Street. I had my siblings, of course, but with five years separating me from both my older brother Bruce and my younger brothers Francis and Daryl, and even more years separating me from my four sisters, my friends were nearer my own age.
Some friends were older than me and some were younger. Daytime games and bike rides sometimes included my brothers and their friends, and as the summer evenings wore on, the streetlights would finally glow and invite us to play hide and seek or kick-the-can. And while the winter snow and cold let us sled and skate and build snow forts that never seemed to equal the scope of our imagination, summers — in my opinion, both then and now — were the best.
So Sue and Ernie, and Junior and Eddie, and Leo and Clancy — friends all — often met in the street for a game of catch or a game of tag or just to see what was going on. And that was our neighborhood. There were others, too, that moved in and stayed but a while, but for the most part our street was a place where families stayed a lifetime …
• • •
As Brandon and I turn right onto Brown Street, some of the houses are gone, several to make room for the firehouse that was built a couple of decades ago. We had friends on that street, too, though we sometimes played well together and other times did not, almost like kids of one big family.
The names of the families that lived there run through my mind while Brandon sniffs the ground as we walk — Troutman, Harding, Barnick — and even though some had no children my age, I knew every house, for there was a time when I delivered the paper to everyone on every street on our side of town …
• • •
“He’s a foster child,” Mom said, as she explained why my new friend Bill had a different last name than his mother and brother. I guess I knew what that meant, but regardless, it really made no difference. We had quickly become good friends when his family moved into the house on the corner.
The house had been empty for a spell, but for one summer — the summer of Bill — it became the home of my best friend ...
• • •
Best friends, it seems, at least when you’re young, can come and go. Sue and I were best friends for a long time, though high school seemed to end that as we took separate paths. And Eddie and I were best friends, too, though the same thing happened in school. Friends on the street are not always the same as friends in school, that’s just the way it worked. But both were important.
Summers were the best — for friends on the street were all we had and those friendships grew with the length of the daylight …
• • •
I was happy to see Bill move in, for he was nearly my age, so we often played together, making up games and the rules that accompany them as we went along.
Card games were our hot day pastime, played on a shady spot on the sidewalk or under the big walnut tree in our front yard. Rummy, Poker, War … games that had an official set of rules written somewhere, perhaps; but we played according to the street rules of the day.
And we whiled that summer away, Bill and I, and though time may have seemed to pass slowly at that age, it seems now that it was gone in an instant.
But we had a project, dreamed perhaps from pages in the comic books we read in the shade of the walnut, or from visions of someday having something as magic as the wrist radio Dick Tracy wore. And we knew, we just knew, we could make it work.
It took just a short while to come up with the plan, but the more we talked about it the more confident we were.
“We can talk after bedtime,” Bill said, “after all the lights are off and we’re supposed to be asleep.”
“And you’ll be able to hear my TV,” I added, for one of the benefits of Dad having a television business was having a TV in my bedroom.
“And you can listen to my radio,” Bill countered.
So we built it — with two empty soup cans and a long length of twine — our own personal communication system. We experimented and modified, using different size nails to make a hole in the bottom of the cans, and different lengths of twine stretched across the quiet street. And when we were convinced we had the right formula, we installed it — easier said than done for a pair of 10-year-olds.
We started in the street, throwing the string up over the wires that carried electricity, and then working on each end to get the string through the big maple trees in the front of Bill’s house and the big walnut tree in the front of mine. And slowly — but certainly surely — we fished each end through a second story bedroom window, one end at Bill’s room, and the other end at mine ...
• • •
I haven’t seen Bill for 60 years, for his family moved away shortly after our summer ended. I hope, as he remembers his short time on Orchard Street, his memories are as soothing as mine.
And I hope his life since has been as good as mine, and as good as anyone else’s who grew up on our quiet little street. But I wonder, knowing now what I didn’t know then, just how his life was. We were friends Bill and I, best friends one might say. And though our skin colors were as different as night and day, it seems we never noticed. We were just best friends.