I remember the summer back in 1951 or so when we discovered there were big numbers of salamanders and snakes in the woods behind PS 23 up on Whitehall Road, the same woods whence I shot out that inviting streetlight with my beloved slingshot, the same woods where Mick and his fellow perpetrators (I don’t know where I was that day) hid out after the great unfinished-Thruway Conflagration (about which major event Mick thus far remains mum herein, for some reason, even though the statute of limitations has almost certainly long expired) and the same woods where later I finally found a public-access monocot plant (Solomon’s Seal) for the monocot/dicot specimen requirement assigned by my civilian but still noxious natural science teacher at Vincentian Institute where I did my first year of high school and one Sunday afternoon when I was home alone hurriedly prepped the specimen folders using Dad’s art tools and got ink all over but only got 1 out of a possible 30 points from the unimaginative teacher… Solomon’s seal is a beautiful plant though… You see what happens when one gets talking about the mystic woods up behind PS 23?
Anyway, starting in late Spring/early Summer while school was still in session, Mick and I and the Olander Twins would head up there into the woods – definitely not when we should be in school, it wasn’t hookey, no way, that would be unthinkable, could only have been a weekend or a holiday, we haloed ones would never miss a precious and delight-filled sunny day in class at St. James Institute; imagine skipping school just to catch wild animals – and caught red salamanders from under the rocks and put them in our pockets, we also caught a lot of snakes, a small one of which I put in a Sucrets box and took to school, let it crawl around on my desk with its salamander friend.
Each time we went into those woods our salamander-snagging expertise grew, until one day we went up there with a big cardboard box full of high-quality dirt to keep our catch in, for as any great hunter knows, one is loathe to part with a redback salamander one has caught legitimately by hand through sheer cunning and lightning speed; such skills must have their trophies. Plus the salamanders were so cute with those bulgy little black eyes and smiley faces, but even better they were free, and best of all their tails came off and wriggled for a long time and really freaked the girls out, which was great. The snakes were aces at their jobs too; my secret heart-throb Diane Finn was gratifyingly horrified at the sudden snake and salamander on her desk. Such are the enigmatic thrills of boyhood.
To get back to that day– when we brought the boxful of forest dirt and salamanders home to the yard of our house on Delaware Avenue we counted our catch and found that we were collectively richer by a staggering 146 salamanders, a new world record that I believe still stands in the pre-teen category. Despite the obvious gold-medalness of the event, however, Mom (for reasons known only to moms) refused to allow us to bring the box into the house (not even into our bedroom!), even when we widened our eyes and looked as sad as we could. We would have loved to have those cute little salamanders crawling all over everything all the time, we would have named every one of them within a year or two. Having no other choice, we did the next best thing and tossed the box under the back porch where we could keep our little red treasures close by, and immediately forgot all about them.
Some time later, when one day I remembered our cardboard vault full of salamanders, I crabbed under the porch to check on our wealth and found that time and the weather had pretty much destroyed the cardboard box, and that every single one of our living treasures had wriggled off into the wild, where living treasures do best. Thus it was that Mick and I and the Olander twins so radically altered the salamander biomass of that region of Delaware Avenue. Now all you salamander-rich folks who live there know who to thank.