Unraveling the hidden layers of my school picnic.
Today’s the day! Even though it’s a school day, everything is going to be different! Once a year in early June, we get to leave our uniforms at home and wear blue jeans and tee-shirts. No maroon blazer with the Sacred Heart School shield on the pocket. No clip-on tie!
Even better, we get to take a bus ride. Not like the public school kids who take those yellow buses — we’re going in a fancy red coach from that company in the next town. The kids still make fun of it though, singing “Onka’s Buses are the best. Ride a mile and push the rest!”
Good thing we’re only traveling a mile or so out of town. Still, everyone is excited to be freed from the classroom and we pile into the long dark bus, jockeying for seats. The older boys run to the back and cram into the long bench. The rest of us sit where we can, instructed by our principal, Sister Mary Julia, to sit straight and quiet.
Of course it’s not that quiet—everyone is whispering excitedly, and once we pull out onto the street, the girls start singing. It’s kind of a fun song, especially the up-and-down silly voices that everyone uses.
“I like a bow-wow better than a chow-chow I like-a little man he like-a me
I take-ee in-ee a very big-ee wash-ee
Ruffles on the petticoat, 10 cents more.”
I don’t know what a petticoat is, but the rhythm of the song gets stuck in my head for the rest of the day. After a couple of verses we’re out of town and barreling down Main Street toward the J-M recreational park.
The bus turns off Finderne Ave. onto the corporate drive and everyone falls over each other, exaggerating the forces of gravity. It’s an excuse to bump into the girls, who stop singing for a minute. The boys just laugh. We come to a stop, gravel crunching beneath the tires. Sister Julia tells us to exit quietly, and we line up for instructions.
On the hill before us stands the gleaming research facility for J-M, our generous hosts for the day’s activities. Behind us are a couple of acres of open fields, bordered by the Raritan river and dense forest. Most of our town is cut off from civilization by nature. We bob our heads excitedly until Sister stops taking.
When the word is given, we all tear off into the field which is filled with attractions. Swing sets, monkey bars, a baseball field, small climbable trees. I make a beeline for the Transite tunnels, a small maze of industrial piping large enough for kids to crawl through. There are a couple of small windows cut for light and ventilation.
I endure the crush of kids pushing through the pipes, all of whom want to experience the journey once. But few remain to transform the structure as I do. The cylinders fire my imagination: Spaceships. Submarines. Enemy Spy Headquarters. I manage to convince a few of my friends of the potential and we re-enact scenes from a recent episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. “All Ahead Full, Boson!”
Eventually we are called to lunch for barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs. The charred, crisp meat is a strange contrast to the pillowy white buns, glued together with a dollop of ketchup, but it’s more savory than most meals at home. We line up with our plates to get a beverage, which is dispensed from a huge silver keg. The man holds a spigot at the end of a hose, and I suddenly remember the treat that I discovered last year in first grade.
The deep brown liquid fills my cup with a gurgle from the spout. The strange, but tempting aroma of wintergreen fills my nostrils as the frothy drink tickles my tongue. The man with the spigot encourages me. “Better than Root Beer, am I right kid?” Dat’s Birch Beer for ya.”
This was a magic elixir, not readily available to me. We were a milk-and-orange-juice family, and soda was a rare treat. Anyway, this soda was not like anything else I’d tasted. While it was nice to have a day off from school, burned burgers and all, the Birch Beer was the highlight. The peak experience, an early gourmand treat. I went back for as many helpings as I could get, and finished off abandoned cups when I found them.
Years later, I would learn that the soda was a regional specialty invented and perfected in nearby Pennsylvania. That makes sense, since at least half of the residents in my home town were Polish immigrants who fled the coal mines of “Pennsy.” They came to New Jersey in the early 20th century seeking a better life, to work in the gleaming factories of Johns-Manville. Or as everyone called it, J-M.
It was a good life in the borough of Manville, gratefully named after the benefactor that employed so many local residents. No more time spent in dirty coal pits, shoveling slag and breathing black dust. No, here at J-M they were producing the miracle products of the future, especially the fireproof insulation called Asbestos, and the cement mixed with asbestos called Transite. The very product used to build our city hall—and the pipe-tunnels supplied to all the playgrounds in town.
A decade later, it would all come crashing down, as an epidemic of white lung disease and emphysema swept though the town, oxygen tents blooming like toadstools after the rain. Then would follow the class-action suits, the bankruptcy courts and general despair. The corporation J-M would restructure, move its headquarters to Denver, and continue to make “safer” products, but the town they left would never be the same.
The investigations would reveal that J-M knew asbestos was harmful since the 1930s. They conveniently stuffed that information in a drawer and went about their business. J-M was perfectly content to present themselves as a benevolent company throwing picnics for their hapless employees and children.
I didn’t know any of that in 1964. All I knew was the exquisite taste and aroma of Birch Beer. It’s better than root beer, for sure.
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