The Catskill Mountains is a place that I have always been drawn to, ever since the time I was 7 or 8 years old and my father woke me early in the morning by placing his hand on my chest and gently shaking me whispering, “Dovid, wake up, we’re going to the ‘country’ this morning!” I never forgot the feeling of his warm hand on my chest, and him saying those words to me. I remembered stories of traveling through the mountains that my mom and dad spoke about, and now I was going to see all those things for myself. I was sure we would stop to get something to eat at the Red Apple Rest, and let the car “rest” as well.
For years, I didn’t know that the missing “period” at the end of the word Rest made it a double entendre, but for me it meant rest for the weary traveler and his automobile, too. The Red Apple was like a pit stop that everyone made on the way to the country. A frankfurter, or a hamburger, with a Pepsi was what most people ordered there from the open “outside” windows, where you might even meet some people you knew from Brooklyn in that very large crowd. We would sit inside at the tables where we ate and talked was about the latest news.
The next impressive thing we looked forward to, in those days, was the Wurtsboro Hill, that infamous hill on the Old Route 17, which left cars and trucks sitting at the side of the road, overheated with their radiators steaming. In those days the cooling systems were not engineered like they are today, and overheating was a prevalent occurrence. I remember as a kid thinking about that hill while we were packing up the car, and wondering if all that extra weight would increase our chances of overheating as we drove up that hill.
When we finally came to the curves in the road at the beginning of the hill and saw the sign “Wurtsboro Hill...slower cars stay in the right lane,” it was like entering the mouth of the dragon and survival depended upon the skill of the driver and the power of his car. My pa proudly stayed in the passing left lane and shifted into second gear. I could hear the sound of the engine racing as we slowly passed every car in that right lane, one by one. The hill was extremely steep but our Ford’s V8 engine seemed like it was going to conquer Wurtsboro Hill and leave all those cars in the dust. We were ecstatic when we made it to the top. It was like winning a marathon. My pa would always say, “Only the best cars made it to the top of that Wurtsboro Hill without overheating!” The words, “slower cars stay in the right lane” can still be seen on a sign on the “Old” Route 17.
Going down the other side of the mountain took a skilled driver, too. Pa would shift into a low gear to let the transmission hold the car back, instead of burning the brakes. Disc brakes were not invented yet, and brake drums would get hot enough to lose their grip. Stopping the car at the side of the road and pouring water on the wheel’s drums to cool them down was not an uncommon thing to do at that time.
In those older cars you could feel almost every bump in the road, and traveling was far from smooth, but every bump and turn in the road was like an obstacle and a challenge to overcome and it was part of the excitement of the journey.
Cars were then all significantly different in their shapes and style, unlike the jelly-bean look of today’s cars. We would play a game of naming the cars on the road and even their year.
When I was a child, we went to the mountains just about every year for our week-long summer vacations. The hotel that we stayed at was a kosher hotel and Yiddish was spoken by most of the people. After our first dinner there, I remember being on the large front porch and the P.A. system was playing a recording of Romania/Romania with Aaron Lebedoff singing. I knew all the words to the recording and I followed his words in “pantomime.” I followed every single word with the gestures I was sure he made.
Hehy! In Romania iz doch git, Trinken-dyges vaist mehn nit, Vyne trinkt min iberahl meh farbyst ah kastravahl. Hy digi digi dom, digi digi digi dom, Hy digi digi dom, digi digi dom.
It’s a lengthy song, and I mouthed every word. When I was done I got a standing ovation and people came over and hugged me and shook my hand. It was like my acting debut and I felt almost ready for my stage career.
My parents came onto the porch as I was finishing the last few minutes of the song, and it was then that they witnessed all the people applauding me. My father shook my hand as my mom kissed me. I became a celebrity there for that entire week.
This is my recollection from my first trip to the Catskill mountains. I will never forget any of it.
By David S. Weinstein
David S. Weinstein makes simple words tell a story of life’s complex, heartfelt and compelling truths.