Proceed at your own risk.
“At the cost of your youngest child its gates will be lifted.”
The long cold winter of 1965 gave way finally to warm and lazy days which drew me and my sisters to the Smoke Rise beach. The thick ice upon which Richard Wohltmann and I had walked to the chapel months earlier had long since melted revealing the dark green waters of Lake Kinnelon shimmering with yellow highlights.
Speckled across the beach were various colored blankets and beach towels hosting hair-perfect lipsticked ladies chatting about current events. Their rhinestone sunglasses and beach hats softened the afternoon sun. The air was familiar with the smell of wet bathing suits, suntan oils, perfume and burgers grilling at the food stand. My friends and I dug in the sand lost in dreams of worlds far away. My sisters sat in their new bikinis playing a recently learned game of Bridge; their skin pale and marble next to their bronze-colored Italian friends. Each fascinated by the other.
Muffled sounds of life blended together; splashing, laughing, coughing, the tapping of a metal clasp against the flag pole in the breeze. Mothers called out, “Come eat!” while children cried back “Watch this Mom!” Here and there little battery powered radios were all tuned to AM 77 WABC. A favorite song played over and over during the day, “Do the Mouse.” It was from the popular “Soupy Sales” show. There wasn’t a kid on the beach who didn’t watch it. It still makes me smile. [Here's a link on YouTube to Soupy Sales with Pookie and White Fang.]
Between songs WABC’s popular DJ, Cousin Brucie, would deliver up his characteristically enthusiastic phrase:
“Is this The Place? Gotta’ be the place! ‘Cause there’s no other place….a’like this place!”
He was so right. This was the place. There was no other quite like it.
Spread before us was our world - The Lake. On the left, the boat docks with little boys standing at the ends casting their fishing rods, the chapel behind in the distance. In front the roped-in swimming area and lifeguard stand, a tanned young man sitting watchfully. Little brightly colored sailboats drifted in the background. Moving to the right, was the rotunda, crowned by serious looking adults in long pants, socks and dress shirts. These new masters had replaced the Kinneys for dominion over this special land. They sat on beach chairs smoking cigars and surveying the scene.
Further to the right of the rotunda, however, was an area of the beach that was more menacing somehow. It was a stretch of beach that everyone just sort of knew should be avoided. I can recall stepping into the waters there just once. The water seemed darker and when I took a small step in, the thick organic muck at the bottom seemed to grab my foot and hold it there. I shivered and pulled back. Everyone somehow knew to avoid this section of beach. Few sat over there. Only the “edgy” or the outcast would even consider it.
Cloistered within our gated womb one could be forgiven for not noticing the great changes going on in the world outside. 1964 had just seen the passage of a landmark civil rights bill in the US which rendered discrimination illegal. But that kind of sweeping change doesn’t come easy and during 1966 and ‘67 violent race riots broke out in hundreds of American cities. But that was far away and it was well outside of our gates.
However, my father’s world, the place where he worked, was outside the gates.
Dad was in Real Estate and development from the 1950s through 2005. He spoke of times that today seem unimaginable. A time, for example, when Italians were not permitted to buy a home in any of the Northern NJ lake communities. High Crest Lake, Fayson Lakes, Lindy Lake, Packanack Lake and all the rest were off-limits. He used to tell me about the little man who developed and sold Packanack Lake. The man used to call my Dad several times a year to remind him to tell his 85 sales agents, many of whom were Italians-Americans, not to show Packanack Lake property to any “undesirables”, including fellow Italians.
In ways similar to those of gated communities all over America at the time, a review board would determine who “qualified” to move in. To their credit, unlike the other surrounding lake communities, the Smoke Rise Lake Community had begun to allow Italians in a few years before my Dad and Mom sat before them in 1962. Dad told me what that process was like: You’d be offered drinks to loosen you up and then you’d have a casual chat with the six board members. The goal was to suss out whom you were and if you “fit.” A few weeks after your meeting, a letter from the board would arrive advising you whether you’d been approved by the board or not. Mom and Dad, of Irish and Scottish descent, made the grade, though it did come with one string attached: So afraid of my Dad’s Real Estate juggernaut at the time and fearing potential competition, they put a capricious deed restriction on our home on Orchard Road that prevented Dad from practicing Real Estate within Smoke Rise. I suppose they could do anything they wanted back then. To his credit, my Dad honored the agreement long after such restrictions were deemed illegal. “A man’s only as good as his word, son” he’d say when I quizzed him about it.
In 1964 a young man named Milton Supman got a job in New York and went before the Smoke Rise review board. He had arrived from California and wanted to raise his family in a safe place.
He was sent a letter a few weeks later advising him he’d been turned down; they didn’t need to give you a reason back then. He moved elsewhere offering no struggle. The children of Smoke Rise, hearing later about the denial, were crushed. You see, Milton Supman, the man deemed “unsuitable” was better known by his stage name, Soupy Sales. We could watch his antics on TV, but he couldn’t join us at The Place.
Time passed and by the mid 60s the civil rights movement was in full force not only in America, but globally. Spain allowed the first native Jewish child to be born there in 500 years, on January 2nd, 1966, for example. But, it was little Suburban Wayne New Jersey that would electrify the country when an insignificant school board election was suddenly the focus of the nations press.
The election was being held to fill 3 vacant seats. Two of the five running were Jewish, Mr. Mandall and Mr. Kraus. A week before the election, the school board’s vice president was quoted in the paper as saying:
"Most Jewish people are liberals, especially when it comes to spending for education. If Kraus and Mandell are elected and Lafer [another Jewish board member] is in for two more years, that means a three to six vote [on the nine member board]. It would only take two more votes for a majority and Wayne would be in real financial trouble. Two more votes and we may lose what is left of the Christ in Christmas celebrations in our schools. Think of it!”
Wayne was now in the national spotlight and camera crews and reporters came out in droves to cover the election results of this obscure school board election just south of Smoke Rise! Despite condemnation of his remarks from all possible official quarters, Mandall and Kraus were defeated in a record turnout by a margin of 2 to 1.
It was in this time and climate that another family went before the Smoke Rise review board. I would prefer to not use their names, though old-time residents will remember. Like Mr. Supman, this couple was Jewish. If approved, they would be the first in Smoke Rise.
They too received a letter a few weeks later advising them that they’d been denied. But, this was now a few years later than Mr. Supman’s denial and much had changed. For example, the NJ courts had ruled in 1966 that Packanack Lake could no longer restrict its buyers to just “White Protestants.”
The couple decided to take on the review board. A battle ensued that dragged on. A lawsuit was threatened. The battle became well known among the Smoke Rise elite of the day and I imagine many an afternoon tea at the Village Inn was punctuated with talk of the matter. As was the cigar talk of the rotunda.
After a great and spirited battle, the couple prevailed and they moved into Smoke Rise that spring. They had won a victory that would forever change Smoke Rise. The gates triumphantly rose for them to enter. Vans brought furniture and a child’s toys could be seen on their well tended lawn. The weather turned sultry and the young wife took her infant daughter to the beach and they set up their blankets on that far side, near the dark waters.
Youth is a time of “firsts” and that day was to be one for me. It was the first time I was to hear a mother’s plaintive wail over a lost child. I can look back now on others; a mother after an earthquake in Turkey stumbling through ruble, a mother in Samoa whose child died in her arms from fever, a mother whose son was found dead from suicide. Such sounds are unforgettable, but as I said, this would be my first.
It began slowly. “Where’s my daughter?”
The woman, that newest member of our community, ran about the rotunda several times growing increasingly frantic.
“WHERE’S MY DAUGHTER!”
Radios were turned off. People were on their feet. Sudden movement was occurring everywhere. People were offering to help look for the little girl. Searchers scattered in all directions. Maintenance workers dropped their shovels. The grill closed up. Everyone was now engaged in the search.
Finally, after much time had passed, the lifeguard organized a group to lock arms and enter the dark waters. They fanned out in a chain and began a slow walk deeper and deeper into the lake until one searcher shrieked and a little lifeless body was pulled from the dark and rushed to the lifeguard who began CPR on the shore.
A strange quiet had settled over us all. There was no sound other than the breathless sobs and wailing of the mother. The lifeguard worked on the child despite the obvious fact that she had been in the water for well over an hour. In the quiet of the afternoon sun, between moments of sobbing you could at times hear the “hut! hut! hut! hut! hut! hut! hut! hut!” of his heroic efforts pressing the child’s little chest.
When someone in my family died, the event was accompanied by bagpipes. The players would press hard against the wind bag of the pipes with their arms and produce sweet sounds of the “Old Country” and of “Amazing Grace.”
But, standing there as a ten year old, it struck me that the pressing on the chest of the child was producing no sound. No music. No coughing. No crying. Nothing.
Each minute passed like hours. Our group of onlookers, from cigar smokers to the maintenance workers, hair perfect ladies to sandy-stomached young boys, stood solemnly. Slowly and one by one each of us on the beach fell to our knees in exhaustion eyes fixed on the lifeguard, his brow wet with sweat, until the entire crowd assembled was kneeling together. The valiant effort to save the child was the only movement.
The lifeguard never faltered. He continued to try and resuscitate the child for the hour or more it took the ambulance to finally arrive from Chilton Hospital. Knowing it was useless, he nevertheless continued, perhaps for the mother’s sake. Finally, with sunlight fading, an ambulance came and the child was taken along with its mother and they were gone.
Months later the mother told my parents that she felt they had been cursed because they pushed so hard to get into Smoke Rise. Being a devout Jew, she was aware of the curse found in the Bible book of Joshua at the start of this story. While clearheaded counselors would protest that it was just a tragic accident, the cruel consequence of time and unforeseen circumstance, you cannot judge the tortured expressions of a person suffering such a loss.
The memory of that day overwhelmed me during this writing as though it had just occurred. We each process trauma and grief in our own ways and times, it seems.
The long summer led to fall and then winter followed turning the lake once more to glass. Then another summer and another until now 45 summers have passed since that day. There have been many other “firsts” for Smoke Rise since. That first Jewish couple, armed with the power of the courts and new laws, were the first to lift the gates for the diverse and many who now call Smoke Rise home.
As far as I know, the funeral took place outside of Smoke Rise. I don’t know how many attended or how long it took the couple to recover from their loss….if ever. I’m also unaware of any service ever being performed at the lake in the spot where the child died. No bagpipes have ever played there for her. Nor was a wreath ever placed there in her memory. I’d like to think that one may be laid there one day to both remember a little girl and lay to rest the shadows of a very different time.
But, then again, I remember that day and that moment in time when the radios were silenced, the cards were set aside, the fishing poles were let down, the cigars were extinguished, the digging was halted, the burners were turned off and the shovels were dropped. I recall a universal image; of anguish clinging to the face of a young mother, pierced though the heart, as a lifeless child was placed in her arms. That day, when the air was punctured by her sobbing and joined by the puffs of air from an unrelenting lifeguard, which blended with our own steady breaths and ascended above to God. That day, when the cigar smokers and fisher-boys, the ladies and maintenance men, the pallid and the bronze, the fry cooks, the bikini-clad and the sandy-bellied boys joined an inconsolable mother.
All kneeling. All united.
[To view the video on YouTube, click on Celtic Legends - Amazing Grace."]
Thank you, John, for this intensely moving story.