Life along the Banks of the Aspetuck

Life in the 1950’s in Easton and Redding was vastly different than it is today. Crime was something that was depicted in mystery novels and movies but wasn’t on anybody’s radar in suburban Connecticut. Easton had a two-man police force while Redding had none. Doors were sometimes locked at night, but more often only when the family went out of town or on vacation. Most milkmen walked right into the kitchen and placed the fresh milk, eggs, and butter directly into the refrigerator. Burglar alarms were called dogs. Smoke detectors were known as noses.

Entertainment was provided by tube filled radios in heavy wooden cabinets that that took a few seconds or more to “warm up” before the sound came to life. There was one band of frequency – AM. Televisions had dials that showed a total of twelve channels, although in Easton and Redding you would be lucky to see five or six clearly enough to make out the image. A screen size that exceeded 17 inches was huge! Dad’s remote control consisted of telling one of the kids to get off his little keester and go change the channel or adjust the volume. Broadcasts began around 7 AM and shut down at midnight. Signoffs were usually accompanied by a recorded prayer and the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Some local networks didn’t even have enough programming to broadcast continuously throughout the day. A test pattern was often all you would see for part of each day when the dial was turned to one of those channels.

Captivating TV test patterns were displayed when the network was either off the air or was experiencing “technical difficulties.”

During the first half of the decade the evening news ran for a whopping fifteen minutes. There were no live feeds from the field and nationally broadcast anything didn’t exist. If you were lucky, you might see a news event that had been captured on film the previous day. The only thing live about the news was Douglas Edwards reading the teleprompter that stood alongside the camera.

If you wanted to watch an NFL football game on Sunday, you watched the Giants play whatever team was on their schedule. The same with baseball, except you had the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Giants to choose from before 1958 when the latter two National League teams moved to the west coast. Then it was the only Yankees until the Mets were formed in 1962. And then it was still mostly the Yankees because the Mets were absolutely dreadful! If you lived locally and watched baseball, you knew the Yankee’s roster by heart and that Ballentine Beer was “cold brewed” – that extra step that made their suds taste fresher than anyone else’s! Mel Allen’s voice likely sounded more familiar to you than your grandfather’s.

Instant communication was done by telephone. The kind with wires. The numbers were selected with a rotary gizmo that needed an index finger placed in the correct hole to spin it. But all that was only for local calls. Want to talk to grandma in New Jersey? Dial zero and wait for the operator – that was a live person who could make the connections between cities that you couldn’t. You’d tell her the city, state, and telephone number and then hang up and wait for her to call you back once she and her network of colleagues had made enough plug-in connections to reach good old gram. Ninety-nine, point nine percent of the time, the operator was a “her” since that was considered a woman’s job in the extremely sexist middle part of the 20th century.

There was no letter “e” before mail. The postal service picked up and delivered the real deal. The price for that service was three cents for a first-class letter and a penny to send a post card. That meant a lot of post cards were sent. Most of your neighbors found out that your aunt Helen had the gout and that your cousin Bob had hit a deer with his father’s Studebaker the same day that you did. Hackers didn’t exist, but talkative mail carriers sure did.

Our Google search engine consisted of a basic knowledge of how to spell and 700 pounds of the twenty-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Britannica was sold by door-to-door salesmen who worked strictly on commission and were trained that the word “no” meant “maybe.”  A “no” triggered an entirely new sales pitch that included tales of woe about the miserable life your children would live if they were deprived the vast set of knowledge contained in those magnificently bound volumes of wonder that could be yours for a measly $27.21 a month over the next five years – about the same amount you would pay for a new Plymouth sedan.

Since both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both younger than any of the kids in our neighborhood, we were still years away from having our own personal computer. That also meant we weren’t able to purchase a Sony PlayStation or a Nintendo anything. The most sophisticated games we had to occupy our time were Monopoly and Scrabble.

So, what did a bunch of healthy, high-spirited, and curious young kids do for fun?

We played outside and made our fantasy world a reality by being both creative and devious at the same time.

Like pretty much every neighborhood in Easton and Redding, ours bordered on land owned by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company. That land was well posted with bright yellow metal signs with black lettering that clearly indicated that trespassing, hunting, swimming, or fishing were not allowed. Like the “No” that meant something different to the Britannica salesman, we took the BHC sign to be meant for anybody who wasn’t us. The fact that two out of every three trees on BHC land had one of those signs nailed to its trunk with no less than seven nails was of no importance to our gang of adventurers. Besides, we had never even seen one of the supposed wardens that every adult told us patrolled those watershed lands. “Tu tierra es mi tierra,” as far as we were concerned.

These signs were obviously meant for others and not our little group of spirited adventurers.

I have no idea at what age a fishing license would have been required in order to legally cast your line into the Aspetuck, but none of us ever had one. Two or three of the kids in our gang had in-ground pools in their back yard, but those weren’t as much fun as swimming in the forbidden Aspetuck.

The lands in the Aspetuck valley were lined with stonewalls that divided the once fertile fields. By the 1950’s many of those fields had been planted with pine trees by BHC crews. By their height – maybe 30 to 40 feet – they had probably been there since the nineteen-teens. There were more than a few old foundations still visible. Old household middens were a veritable treasure trove, yielding small bottles, bones, and shells. Rusting pieces of iron plows and parts of old wagon wheels fueled our imaginations. Over the years we found enough discarded horseshoes to shoe the entire 9th Cavalry.

There were several old factory sites in the valley just north of the Easton-Redding border. There were three identifiable button factory foundations as well as the incredibly well-preserved granite block foundation of James Sanford’s old iron foundry on Stepney Road in Redding. All those sites yielded small treasures that were connected to the history of that valley, and all fueled our imaginations of times gone by.

Part of the foundation of one of the old button factories that were powered by water from the Aspetuck river.

Our gang consisted of five permanent members, all of whom lived within shouting distance of the others and all of whom hung out together throughout their formative years. While there were others who came and went, the core five were always there ready to try just about anything that wasn’t likely to get us killed…maimed was okay, but nothing considered deadly.

We all loved roaming the woods and exploring the rivers and streams. One day we all decided that a raft would be a great way to explore the Aspetuck below the mill ponds. Unlike the canoe we had attempted to carve out of a tree trunk the summer before, a raft seemed like an easy project. Cut smaller trees and fasten them to a few cross pieces using a combination of nails and ropes.

Three days of hard work and multiple design and engineering changes and the raft was done. Just one problem remained – getting it from the backyard we built it in down to the river. The most direct route was probably a third of a mile straight down the hill to the river. The five of us tried to lift it. Whoa!! It was a bit heavier than we had figured. Who would have imagined that a few saplings (about a dozen) tied together and attached to four 2×4 cross pieces could weigh so much?

We tried dragging it. Not bad going across the lawn if you didn’t mind a few gouges in the grass. But when we reached the woods…Why were those trees so darn close together?

In a day and a half, we had made it about two hundred yards into the forest. It was mid-July and we wanted to have it in the river before school started. Being no amateurs at failure, we decided to change our plans for our would-be river raft.

We had reached the point where the BHC had reforested the land with their precisely planted pine trees. Planted equidistantly apart, it dawned on one of us that perhaps our raft could become the base of a treehouse. A low treehouse, since we would need to hoist the thing high enough to get it off the ground, but no higher than the shortest member of our gang could reach.

Some quick measurements showed that we wouldn’t need to alter the raft much to make it fit. Alterations were our specialty. We had never built anything that didn’t need multiple changes to make it work. Our biggest problem would be that we would need at least three or four more able bodied pre-teens to help with the lifting.

Two days later we had the raft resized and ready to hoist off the ground. Three of the older kids in the neighborhood had been recruited to help. One of them had brought his older brother’s chainsaw. Foresight evidently came with age, since Butch – doesn’t every neighborhood gang have a kid named Butch? Well, good old Butch knew we needed walls to make a treehouse and our puny bowsaws were no match for his gasoline powered machine.

Suddenly, the roar of that chainsaw brought visions of the never-yet seen BHC wardens to mind. It was more than doubtful that they would have attributed our tree cutting to mere youthful exuberance. Butch had several saplings cut to length and ready to go by the time we had secured our raft to the trees and made it the floor of our new treehouse.

The latest issue quickly became nails that would be long enough to secure the logs of the walls to the four trees that made the main frame of the treehouse. We had long ago decided to never ask our parents for the materials we needed to complete our projects. Asking for supplies was always met with questions as to what they would be used for. For some strange reason, our parents never thought our projects were well thought out, and we were usually met with a chorus on “No’s” when requesting materials.

It was much easier to “borrow” our needed materials. Luckily, our do-it-yourself dads usually purchased more than they would need for their weekend projects, so they seldom missed a few 2×4’s or a couple of dozen extra nails.

Butch notched the logs for the walls while a couple of us managed to find some 5-inch spikes to secure the logs to the trees.

By the end of day four, the walls were up, and we began to build the roof. A thatched roof seemed like a good idea. It was natural and we wouldn’t need to purloin any additional lumber or shingles from our fathers. We could use the long grasses found in the openings of the forest intertwined with a few of the unnecessary pine branches we had removed from the lower trunks of our treehouse’s main frame. By the end of the day, the roof seemed like it might keep the rain out. At least some of it.

Two bales of hay we “found” in one of the nearby barns were torn apart and used to soften the floor, nee raft, to make sleeping on it more tolerable.

We drew straws to see which four would sleep inside the first night while the others would sleep on the ground below the treehouse.

Everything went smoothly until about 2 AM when the thunder signaled an impending storm. We soon learned that a thatched roof needed to be layered and tightly woven in order to keep anything heavier than a light mist out. Those sleeping in the treehouse quickly became rather wet while those on the ground below stayed relatively dry.

We lived there for nearly a week, making daily pilgrimages to our respective houses to check in so that our parents knew we were still alive and sporting no broken appendages. There we would receive at least one good meal, a change of clothes, and a bath that our picky mothers insisted we take.

With the raft no longer available for navigation, we patched a few old inner tubes and floated on the Aspetuck during the day. We caught enough fish to fry on our campfire and supplement our supply of nutritious staples that consisted mainly of Ring-Dings, Hostess Cupcakes, and Oreos. Life was good that summer.

The river ran slowly through area near the Easton-Redding border making for good swimming, fishing, and floating. Hearst Connecticut media photograph.

After the first week, the novelty wore off a little and while we still spent our days between swimming, floating on the river, and lounging in that treehouse, we only chose to sleep there when there was no sign of rain in the forecast.

By mid-August we were on to a new adventure, building a gasoline powered racer with no brakes and a somewhat less than precise rope steering system. But that’s another story for another day.

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