My family moved to Pound Ridge fifty years ago. I was ten, the oldest of five children. Our neighbors each had four kids, six of them of school age. Almost overnight, we had a gang of eleven who’d play together daily, our numbers sometimes augmented by other kids who lived down the road. Ours was a free range childhood. We spent our time in the woods looking for abandoned stone walls and ruins, or riding our bikes (no helmets, natch), roaming from house to house to house when we were hungry or bored or wanted a change of scenery. There were always dogs with us (no leash laws), following us from yard to yard. My best friend Jon and his younger sister Sara lived next door, in a house with an expansive lawn that had a huge, ancient oak tree in its center, a tree as large and almost certainly as old as the Bedford Oak. In the evenings, we’d gather under the tree and play until long after dark, endless rounds of Tag and Gray Wolf and Hide and Seek, along with a game we invented that involved tracing the tree’s labyrinthine shadows on the grass. We’d hear whippoorwills and katydids and fireflies, wood frogs and peepers and toads trilling, and watch bats stitch across the twilight. In the spring, my brothers organized games of kickball. One summer my brother Pat held a track meet, with awards made of wood blocks spray painted gold. We held a carnival in a neighbor’s field with homemade games of chance and prizes from the local five-and-dime.
The highlight was a roulette wheel made out of a bicycle wheel. We raised seventy-eight dollars, and donated it to the National Wildlife Federation. The field was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Widdecombe. She had been a radio and stage actress early in the century, and when her husband died at the age of 101, he was the oldest living member of Actor’s Equity. Mrs. Widdecombe became a close friend of our family. I was fascinated by her 1700s house with its piles of books and ancient newsclippings, a large painting of her in a Theda Bara-ish pose, and sepia-toned photographs of actors and writers. Winter brought snow days — sledding at the Widdecombe’s field, or on the golf course down the road — almost a mile away. We walked, dragging our sleds. Later, we’d play Monopoly or blackjack for hours, betting with plastic chips. Our parents were benign but mostly absent overlords. If one of them had asked to join our games, we’d have thought they’d lost their mind. If we’d asked for a ride anywhere within a two or three mile radius, they’d have thought we’d lost ours.
During the school year, we walked down the road in rain or snow or sleet to wait for the bus. One bitter morning the temperature was 13 below: we jumped up and down and made up a circle dance to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance to keep warm. By the late 1960s, there were 14 of us at the bus stop, always with a canine contingent. It sounds idyllic, and in many ways, it was. When I was in high school, I began writing about a fictional version of Pound Ridge. I called it Kamensic Village. It shows up in numerous novels and stories of mine, along with some recurring characters, among them an elderly woman inspired by Mrs. Widdecombe. When I visit Pound Ridge now, I rarely see children or dogs playing outside. The ancient oak tree is gone — one windless, sunny afternoon my parents heard a crashing sound. They ran next door to see that the tree had fallen. In the gaping hole left by its immense root system, a solitary toad sat on a rock. Still, the ancient stone walls remains, and the secret ruins in the woods. And when I write about Kamensic Village, the oak tree still stands sentinel, the moon shining through its leaves to loose the shadows of children playing in the night.