Redevelopment Can't Provide What Highlands is Missing

They were different times in Highlands in the 1960s. People felt safer, apparently, because kids in a neighborhood could all play in the street, marking their hopscotch games with big colored pieces of chalk on the street or sidewalk, knowing that drivers through the neighborhood would be on the lookout and driving slowly to give the kids enough time to get out of the way.

For those living on Route 36 and Highland Avenue it was even easier after Our Lady of Perpetual Help School was built; the parking lot was also a playground at lunchtime. So after school, it was a great place for the kids to play on the games not chalked, but actually painted on the parking lot near the fourth grade classroom, play with the Tether Ball on the post by the garage, or jump rope or use their hula hoops. The boys could throw softballs and tease the girls, but everybody felt safe.

From that neighborhood to the Public School and no bus service meant every child had to walk to kindergarten. My older girls had walked from Huddy Avenue up the hill to kindergarten, always with a group of friends they met by Johnston’s Hardware Store. They were delighted when we moved to Highland Avenue and they were going to OLPH, because walks up hills were ended, and they could almost roll out of their beds and into their classrooms. Jimbo always got the award for being the last to get to school, but rarely late…he didn’t leave our house across from the third grade classroom until the first bell rang, but that gave him enough time to get in the line of students in the parking lot and walk into the classroom with the class.

Both Jimbo and Tracie went to kindergarten when we were living on Highland Avenue, so while it did not mean walking up a hill, it meant walking along the sidewalk every day the half mile or so to the school. Jimbo made the trip with TR Dempsey, Bobby Wicklund, Patrick O’Neil, Jimmy Kovic and those other great boys that made living in that neighborhood a great place to raise children.

When it was Tracie’s turn, it was she and Priscilla O’Neil, whom she’d meet at the corner next to church, who walked together to get to kindergarten. As parents, neither Sis O’Neil nor I ever worried about the girls making the trip at five years of age alone and adjacent to a busy highway. Both moms knew there were neighbors along the way who would have their eye out for the girls, wave them a cheery good morning, or perhaps hustle them on their way if they seemed to be lagging a bit.

No matter where they played after school, it was always fun. The girls all loved to go to Kovic’s house further up the hill. That clan’s dad, Mike, an incredible builder and a great dad, had built a gorgeous playhouse for his daughter Christine in their backyard, and the younger kids were so amazed at how realistic it was, how it had wood and shingles and windows and a door, just like on real house.

Or all the kids would go up to Hartshorne woods and either wander through the woods, especially in the spring when the dogwood was in bloom and some of the kids would break off a branch or find a branch with flowers on it on the ground and bring it home. There were always paths to explore, flowers to pick, birds to watch and games to play. And there was always the five o’clock fire whistle to let them all know they had to rush home and be in time for dinner and homework.

All along Highland Avenue everyone waved to Mr. Higgins, Bob to all the adults, Irene’s husband, who lived on Valley Avenue and ran every night keeping in shape. A fireman in New York, Bob was always a favorite among all the kids, because he always took the time to pay special attention to each one of them. The younger kids also remember when one or more of Bob’s daughters would be running alongside him.

The Highland Avenue kids loved Mrs. Waters…out of her earshot they did call her by her first name, Gussie, Buddy Waters’ wife. She had a terribly overweight dachshund, Peanuts, that she would walk on a leash, and who could barely make it up the curb to the sidewalk without skinning his underside, making him yip with the sudden unexpected pain.

And Kay Dominguez…she was Aunt Kay to everyone, in her house across from school on the top of the hill, whom everyone knew and loved and who had the cheeriest laugh and the loudest voice with her New York accent when she wanted to get your attention. Kay’s house was another with an open door policy and everyone, young, old, male and female, would gather in her kitchen for words of wisdom from Aunt Kay.

There were Ryans on both corners, Hubie and Rose near Miller St., and the whole Larry Ryan clan at South Peak.

When OLPH started Bingo, Thursday nights offered something special. All the kids at OLPH had to get their homework done early, because at least one of their parents, in many cases, both, would be in the school hall on the second floor working the Bingo that raised the funds to pay for the cost of building the school. Father Delzell was one of the favorite callers, along with Luke Penta and Jim Smith, sometimes Ben Ptak.

Rose Penta and Gerry Ptak, along with Vi McConnell and Dot Lahey were always among the women in the kitchen brewing the coffee, serving the cupcakes and staying to clean up after 10 when the games were over and friends were gathering and laughing outside over their wins and losses. The camaraderie and companionship of the time was contagious.

Dogs. There were always lots of them around. Rarely on leashes, other than Peanuts. Always obedient to whoever told them to get out of the way or move. All but Cosma.

Cosma was our St. Bernard dog, a dog we got from the SPCA who weighed in at over 125 pounds. Cosma loved to lie right smack in the middle of Highland Avenue. At first, cars going up to Henry Hudson would beep at him, trying to get him to move so they could continue on the road. But Cosma never moved. Sprawled out in all her glory across the street, she somehow knew every driver would see her and everyone would swerve to be sure they missed her. There was the one day a New York driver was coming down the street just as Cosma was walking out to her resting place. They stopped to wave to her, and she ran right smack into the side door. Cosma backed off, shook her head, and laid down. The driver also stopped, was assured she was OK, and laughed when he saw the dent her head had made in the side of his car.

She was truly a part of the family for many years and a ball of fluff and softness that more than our own kids would use her to cuddle, to cry, or to just play with.Jimbo was enroute to the Marine Corps when Cosma was ten years old or so and had cancer.

The vet gave us the choice of having her front paw amputated or putting her down to ensure she would not always be in pain. Thinking it would not be fair to have a big, heavy old dog learn how to walk on three legs, we made the sad choice of having her put down. I was with her at the vet’s office when the terrible deed was done, and did not have the courage to tell our children what we were doing.

They did not know it for years, until they were all adults and I finally admitted the one time I had not been completely truthful with them.The vet and I had put her in two burlap bags, he helped me lift her into the back of my car, and Doreen, a dear friend at The Courier, helped me dig a big hole in a friend’s spacious back acreage.

Cosma remains there today, buried under beds of daffodils that bloom in the spring


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