When I got home, my answering machine showed one new call. I hit the play button and heard, "Hey, Bobby "
Of course it was someone from my childhood, since no one's called me Bobby since then.
I recognized the voice immediately, and it wasn't just "someone" from my childhood - it was my best childhood friend.
I can't say I have a best friend now - I've been fortunate to have formed more than my share of besties. But from ages 12 to 16 I had only one best friend, Mike Newman.
Mike lived in Yonkers, but his family had a summer place up here. We met in summer school, where we were both making up not for lost time but for lost credits, and became friends almost immediately. We were almost inseparable that summer and every summer thereafter, until we drifted apart for reasons I still don't understand.
We spent Christmas vacations at each other's house, each year alternating whose home we stayed at. I don't know what Mike thought of his time in My Home Town, but my visits to Yonkers were always great adventures. But I clearly recall one time in particular that was a great mis-adventure.
Like lambs to the slaughter
It started when we were told we were going on a road trip. I always liked to travel, so it sounded good to me. I don't know how it seemed to Mike, but I assume he went along with it just because he was a good guy. We packed our stuff for an overnight and didn't think anymore of it. This was a major miscalculation, because if we had thought about it, we might have passed on the whole deal from the get-go.
The next afternoon a car about as big as an aircraft carrier pulled up in front of the house, and out stepped a man - a rough-looking Mediterranean type. He was followed by a pudgy kid our age, stuffing his face with a doughnut.
They came in the house and were introduced to us. The man was Freddy; the kid was Freddy's nephew Carmine.
Though I didn't know it at the time, Freddy came with a back story. Mike's dad was a doctor and his first patient had been Freddy's father.
The old man had been on death's door for 20 years, or at least he'd been feeling on death's door. Keep in mind, this was in the early '50s when, compared to now, medicine was in its infancy and it was hard to cure or even diagnose a lot of things we now routinely understand and cure.
The old man had been to an almost endless array of doctors, but no one diagnosed him correctly, much less made him feel any better. Dr. Newman was confused at first too, but after a series of visits, he figured it was an anemia that could be alleviated by shots of some sort. The good doctor gave the old man the shots, and miracle of miracles! - he got better. At least it seemed like a miracle to everyone in the neighborhood, who immediately piled into Dr. Newman's office and put themselves under his care, then, and forever.
But another result was Freddy felt himself forever in Dr. Newman's debt. He'd visit the family every few months, always bestowing goodies like a half-dozen lobsters, Delmonico steaks and the like. So his taking us on the road trip was an act of generosity however misplaced and misguided.
Remember, this was in the dead of winter - the dead of the old winter. Traditionally, the coldest day of the year is on St. Hilary's feast day, January 13, and not too long before that, we were headed north.
In the ice box
Our destination was the northern fringe of the Catskills. The drive took about two hours and the farther away we got from Yonkers, the more barren, frigid and darker it became. Back then, I didn't know what the word "intuition" meant, but I was experiencing a whole lot of it, as a little voice in my head kept saying, "Uh-oh," over and over. When we exited the Thruway and started driving through the country, the little voice started booming.
We drove this way and that, each turn taking us onto narrower and narrower roads, surrounded by less and less of anything civilized and more of everything white, windswept and weird. Finally, we drove up what seemed like a cow path and stopped.
"OK, boys," said Freddy, "here it is."
He held his arm out expansively, much like Pa Cartwright showing off the Ponderosa to Luke, Hoss and Little Joe.
But while it may have been The Ponderosa to him, to me his country digs were an old brown trailer about half-buried under snow, surrounded by an endless, empty field.
I stepped out of the car and immediately my feet froze, my cheeks burned, and my eyes watered uncontrollably. Through the blur I saw Freddy shovel a path to the trailer door.
"C'mon in, fellas," he shouted, waving us forward.
While I hadn't been standing there over five minutes, I felt frozen to the ground.
Certainly, I was frozen every other which way. Finally, I stumbled forward on numb feet and went in the trailer.
"I'm gonna hook up the heat and the water," said Freddy. "Make yourselves comfortable."
Make myself comfortable? I could sooner make myself into the number one contender for the heavyweight boxing title.
If it was 10 below outside the trailer, it seemed like 20 below inside, because outside I'd moved a bit. Inside, I just sat like a lump, looking into the middle distance and watching a huge vapor cloud form with my every exhale.
After a bit, Freddy popped back in and turned on the heat - not that I could feel it. I also couldn't feel my feet, my hands, or my nose. In fact, the only thing I could feel was immensely sorry for myself.
I looked at Mike, sitting next to me on the couch. He too was staring ahead, blankly, eyes half closed, probably stuck together by the ice on his lashes. Carmine was at the end of the couch, staring forlornly at a Three Musketeers bar in his hand that he wasn't about to risk taking off a glove to unwrap.
We sat like graven images for probably another 40 minutes, till the room temperature hit maybe a balmy 45. Meanwhile, Freddy was fussing around in the kitchen, getting ready to cook up our dinner. I still couldn't feel my toes, but at least I couldn't see my breath either. Finally, about an hour later, the temp had risen to 60 at the max, and we'd thawed enough to move our limbs, talk, and even eat the pasta that Freddy had lovingly cooked. Actually, it was delicious. For all his sinister mien, Freddy was a real pussycat. He also was a weird combination gourmand/Mama's boy and never went anywhere without gallons of his mother's home-made spaghetti sauce.
When Freddy asked who wanted seconds, we all responded, and when he gave me mine he said, "So I understand you live in the Adirondacks?"
"Yep. I do," I said.
"It's beautiful up there," he said.
"I go up there every summer, to visit Mike and his family," he said.
"Really?" I said.
"Yeah, never missed one yet." Then he added, "But I'll never go up there in the winter."
"Oh?" I said. "Why's that?"
"You kiddin' me?" he said. "Only a complete nut-job would try to deal with a place that cold!"