Southern New Jersey, February 1973; I don’t specifically remember the weather, but I can tell you what it was: it was bleak, colorless, and cold. That’s the way Jersey winters were and are. From late November until the middle of April, there is never any color, to the senses it is like viewing a cinematographer’s shot of a winter scene in black-and-white. A different interpretation of Fifty Shades of Gray; not exhilarating or arousing, but bleak and depressing.
It was February, mid-winter, and it was that time.
The time wasn’t correlated to a specific day, or week, or sometimes even the month. It came without cause, never forewarned, planned or discussed, it just came. Like it had for so many years that the numbers could no longer be ticked off one’s fingers while recounting past adventures. It was time and we knew. Not from each other, not from some sign, we knew because it was carried in our DNA.
I was the youngest of the three, off from work and bored with TV. I drove to the North End for a beer and a confrontation, hoping that the usual gang of bearded, flannel-clad outcasts might still be accompanied by the redhead from the A&P. I had made an unsuccessful move to steal her away from Ugly Mike before the big fight started. The fight wasn’t over, and neither was my interest in that cute but chubby cashier.
I opened the side door and cautiously scanned the darkness alert to any approaching danger. I let the door swing closed and my pupils began to adjust; in the dim illumination of beer-bar neon, I saw no Ugly Mike and no redhead, but seated at the bar, making time with the barmaid, my barmaid, there sat my two older brothers.
I’m not even sure if I said hey. Marianne took her cue at my arrival and went to fetch another can for the one-legged Nam Vet seated in a booth. There were several moments of silence while I studied this riff-raff of blood relations, trying to figure out why they were at the North End, and if that meant good news or bad. One of them said, “Cedar Lake.” That’s the way it was in ’73.
We didn’t plan these trips. I hadn’t seen either of my brothers in over a month, and suddenly all three of us are in the front seat of my Suburban heading to Cedar Lake.
Cedar Lake is a dilapidated camp ground, deep in the Jersey Pine Barrens, that has long out lasted its glory days. Back in the early 60s, my brother Mark had met the owner during a deer drive. The whispered conversation over a shared Thermos of diner coffee ended with Mark getting permission to use the camp property during the winter when it was closed. We had permission to fish the lake for its sizable population of yellow perch and largemouth. We could hunt the adjoining woods for quail, squirrel and woodcock. And at sunrise and sunset, we could use the owner’s blind for the coastal migration of duck.
Here we were, three man-boys, off on our annual paramilitary masculinity test. My under-dash mounted tape deck pounded out tunes from well-worn cassettes of Steve Miller, Derek and the Dominos, and the Allman Brother’s Band. With Mark as the navigator, we headed south into the barrens. Our annual excursion had strict rules, but the rules were simple: bring your shotgun, plenty of ammo; your fishing stuff (a many poles as you could muster); and warm clothes. Provisions were kept to the minimum needed for survival; coffee, beer, and something to eat the first night when we set up camp. After that, if we couldn’t shoot or catch it, we didn’t eat.
The pine forests of South Jersey are not to be reckoned with lightly. There are some black bear, occasionally a bobcat, packs of wild dogs, and of course, the legendary Jersey Devil. But it is also the habitat of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, some not-so friendly guys that you REALLY don’t want to stumble upon, and obviously, there are the indigenous people, the Pineys (another neighborly type).
The Pineys had lived isolated in the forest for generations and weren’t known to be terribly friendly. I’ve seen trucks peppered with buckshot for nothing more than driving on the wrong dirt road or God-forbid, using someone’s driveway for a turnaround. Pineys, at least when they were at home, were to be avoided for safety’s sake.
You did see Pineys out in civilized public; they own bait shops and gas stations and stuff, in fact, meeting them on neutral ground is part of a Pine Barrens adventure. They’re easy to identify, almost all of them past the age of puberty suffer from a strange medical malady called the Groagy Nose. I have never figured out if it is genetic or the result of something in the environment, but both the men and the women grow these huge, grotesque, misshapen, bulbous snouts. Their noses get bigger and uglier with age, in fact, I bet medical science with a little research could calculate the age of an Pine Barrens resident just by measuring how groagy their Groagy Nose is.
Once after I moved to Florida, I did see an old man with a huge Groagy Nose, but I figured that he was either victim of a cruel mutation or was some rare form of back-woods tourist.
The night we set up camp everything was in motion. We had to gather firewood, build our primitive sleeping lean-to, fetch fresh water from the camp laundry (the only place with a freeze proof faucet, Mark had a key). And then we would build a fire to cook some burgers or whatever, try to keep warm, drink way too much beer, and it being the ‘70s, there might have been another contraband intoxicant involved, but for the sake of my reputation, I maintain, “I never inhaled.” During the bustle and preparation, our conversations consisted of bemoaned tales of our woeful lives, our thankless jobs, where we were getting laid or not, and most importantly, the latest news of our hunting and fishing expeditions embellished with just enough exaggeration to prove that each of us were better than any other sportsman in the world (at lying, not necessarily hunting and fishing).
Three brothers, a pitch black night, a roaring campfire, oh yeah, we had that ritual, too. Through bloodshot eyes and clouded minds, we unveiled carefully constructed half-truths of unsolved murderous rampages, eye-witnessed paranormal manifestations, gory corpse discoveries, and other assorted this-should-scare-the-shit-out-of-you stories. I don’t think we ever really scared each other, and if I had ever managed to frighten one of my brothers, he must have kept it as secret as I did. But there was one tale, one of shared memory, which we always reminisced: it was our encounter with the Jersey Devil.
I was twelve, I think. Finally old enough to go deer hunting with Dad and my brothers. Dad drove us deep into the Pine Barrens to a pre-surveilled spot along a fire break. We spread out at 100 yard intervals to wait in ambush for Bambi’s husband or son to wander by. I stayed nearby the car, down a ways was Mark, then Charles, then Dad. We hadn’t been in the woods long enough for me to lose a toe to frostbite, so I was surprised when Dad and my brothers came back almost at a run. “Get in the car. Get in the car. Unload your goddamn gun and get in the fucking car!”
Mark told me later that he had seen the Devil hanging by its arm from a tree. He got my Dad and Charles to show them thinking it was an optical illusion. Apparently my brothers still believe that illusions aren’t supposed to move, or make grunting noises, or climb around in the trees. I never saw what they saw, but I did see that it scared the living shit out of my Dad, and at twelve years old, that leaves one hell-of-an impression.
After the tales were told, my conscious dimmed by alcohol (and shhh! that stuff is illegal!), I slipped through the crevice of now and became a then before anyone else. We slept in the protection of my truck foregoing the lean-to because of a brisk winter wind that started around midnight. It was crowded and uncomfortable, but in our condition, no one cared.
The next thing I remember was Mark climbing out the rear door into the pre-dawn darkness. I stretched the chill from my stiff muscles, worried a little at the way my stomach felt and then I climbed out to join him. We had one of those silent brother conversations where we decided I was going to tend to the fire while he fixed the coffee. He unpacked the campfire percolator, it was a perfect pot to brew brown coffee.
Yes, brown coffee. The fresh water at Cedar Lake Campgrounds had a very peculiar characteristic. It looked fine, smelled fine, even tasted fine, but when you boiled it, it turned brown, the same color as the cedar waters of South Jersey’s lakes and streams. This worried us the first time it happened (we even joked with each other that the brown water might be the cause of Groagy Nose). But hey, who among us wants to face a cold winter morning without a cup of hot coffee? In deference to the potential risk to our noses, we drank the brown coffee each and every trip. Besides, we discovered that brown coffee tasted better than that stuff at home; I don’t know why. Yes, brown coffee.
With the fire bright with new flame, I wandered down to the lake to find a bush worthy of being pissed on, and as I drained the remnants of last night’s beer, across the lake a huge bird took flight from the treetops.
“That an eagle?”
“No. Look at the shape of the wings. It’s a buzzard. A turkey buzzard.”
It circled higher and higher, like a sentry climbing to his overlook post. Suddenly, two more soldiers took to the air, and I watched. Then several more, and then a dozen more, and then dozens more, and then hundreds more lifted high above the trees, and I watched.
There is something spiritual about seeing a thousand winged giants silhouetted against the dawning sky. We watched together, neither of us spoke, neither of us thought to wake Charles.
I always think of those trips to Cedar Lake as a preamble to our lives. It would not be but a handful of years before Charles will have been married and divorced twice, and reconciled to live a life of bachelorhood. Mark will have been married and divorced, gone through a slew of bad relationships, remarried his first wife, found a mole on his leg and died of melanoma. Me, I got married, started raising the ex-husband’s two daughters, and fearing I might replicate the fate of my brothers, left. My New Jersey roots were buried in the polluted soils of childhood antics and teenaged mistakes. I felt stymied and root-bound like a plant left too long in the nursery. I had to get free. My wife and I, along with the girls, transplanted our family on the gulf coast of the Sunshine State. I successfully segregated myself from the many bad influences and well-earned reputations of my early years. We would spend the next twenty-five years in Florida where all there was to worry about is hurricanes, tornadoes, alligators, lightning strikes, and the occasional shark attack. It was paradise.
Whenever I get depressed from the inevitable stress and pressure of life, I remember back to the camaraderie of my brothers, the satisfaction of harvesting and eating fresh game, our campfire stories, the awesome nature we witnessed, and the one-of-a-kind taste of brown coffee. It was a wonderful time.
In the years since Cedar Lake and those adventures with my brothers, I came to realize that Florida had become stale with the same types of pollution that taints the soils of my youth. My wife and I transplanted again into the mountaintop forest of the North Carolina Smokys. The girls both stayed down on the peninsular raising families, reveling in the camaraderie of sisterhood, and building their own stories of life. My oldest brother suffered with hemorrhoids for a few years before discovering that the entire cellular structure of his digestive tract was a metastasizing cancer. My little brother and sister (not included in this particular tale) remain rooted back there in New Jersey; both parents are dead, both older sons are buried, and the middle child, the nerdy son, the rebel, the bookworm and the black sheep, now sits as the head the family. I do my best “leading” my baby brother and sister, and as for those who are gone, I do my best to keep them alive and well in the words I write, although admittedly, sometimes I still get lonesome for a silent conversation and a cup of brown coffee.