Follow the River

The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.


I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river

The Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery

Two things I learned about the playwright Christopher Marlowe in school that I remember was that he might have written some (or all?) of Shakespeare’s plays and that he was killed in a tavern brawl.
He died on May 30, 1593. There was a fight in a London tavern and Marlowe was stabbed in the eye after a dispute over the bill. That I will never forget. He was 29 years old. He is best known for the plays Hero and Leander, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second and especially The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
There are plenty of mysteries about authors of that time, especially Mr. Shakespeare. The records just don’t exist. tab, no less. I don’t think it is really a mystery about the authorship of Will’s plays, though much has been written and conjectured about their authorship. I am of the belief that he wrote them but that he may have collaborated with other writers on some, but his name on them guaranteed an audience. If Will was alive in this or the last century, I’m sure he would have gotten into writing for movies and TV and attached his name to projects or adaptations.
It turns out that there is some mystery about the circumstances of Marlowe’s death. One theory is that he was assassinated under orders from Queen Elizabeth I because he was a very public atheist. Marlowe was out on bail when he was killed and if he had gone through an inquisition there was a good chance he would have been executed. You may have learned that Shakespeare was careful about writing or saying if he was a Protestant or Catholic in order to not offend, to get his plays approved by the court, and to protect his life.  The Queen gave orders to silence Marlowe and “prosecute it to the full,” and she pardoned Marlowe’s murderer, Ingram Frizer, a month later.
Young, handsome Christopher “Kit” Marlowe had his enemies. Friend of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was supposedly worried about being implicated if there was an inquisition of Marlowe, so he would have liked to have him out of way before that time.
Marlowe’s former roommate was Thomas Kyd. Kyd was also a playwright, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and an important name in Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd’s plays were overshadowed by Shakespeare’s works. Kyd is sometimes credited with a play titled Hamlet that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version. About a month before Marlowe’s death, Kyd had been arrested and tortured for his connection with Marlowe. Kyd died a year later at the age of 35 unknown and in debt.
But if I ever write my Marlowe murder mystery for the page or screen, I might use that theory, but the more interesting plot is that Marlowe actually faked his own death.
There are some who believe(d) that Kit faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe outside London or out of England, Marlowe would have continued writing and sending his works back to England to be performed. They would need to be attributed to someone else.
Two weeks after Marlowe’s inquest, the first piece of writing to appear under the name William Shakespeare was published. Shakespeare was very likely influenced by Marlowe’s plays as he was the popular writer of the time and Will’s early plays seem more like Marlowe’s writing. Was Will the name on the script while he was learning to write on his own?
I once pitched my story idea to a Shakespeare professor and he said there was a book out there that also followed that idea. I did some digging and found The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. She points out that Shakespeare was rather fascinated with characters who were thought to be dead.
There are 33 characters who appear in 18 of his plays that are mistakenly believed to be dead for some part of the story, including some deliberately staged deaths and three faked deaths done to avoid real death.
I guess I’ll have to collaborate with Ros… or I might just work on my other literary murder mystery about the death of Edgar Allen Poe. We are still not certain what happened to him on those final days – and Poe had such an interesting life before that. I’m surprised no one has made a bio film on him already.

This post originally appeared on my Poets Online blog

Celebrate New Year’s Eve Again Tonight

Julian calendar
      Roman Julian Calendar poster print

According to the Julian calendar, tonight is the eve of the new year. Most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, but it was used for over 16 centuries. (The Christian Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar.)

The Gregorian calendar was accepted in 1582 as being more accurate and it eventually replaced the Julian though it didn’t happen overnight or even worldwide in that year. Astronomers still use the Julian calendar dates for celestial events occurring before the Gregorian calendar was introduced.

The Julian calendar had discrepancies between the calendar dates and the actual time of events like  the spring equinox. It was Pope Gregory who decreed that October 4, 1582, on the Julian calendar was to be followed by October 15, 1582, in the new Gregorian calendar. England, with its own church, stuck with the Julian calendar for two more centuries.

The Julian calendar was proposed by Julius Caesar in AUC 708 (46 BC). It was a more accurate version of the existing Roman calendar and it took effect on 1 January AUC 709 (45 BC), by his edict. It was designed with the aid of Greek mathematicians and Greek astronomers for accuracy and was the predominant calendar in the Roman world and most of Europe for more than 1,600 years.

Like Taking Candy From a Baby

decoder I wrote earlier about the Jean Shepherd story that became part of the film, A Christmas Story, Ralphie feels ripped off when he sends away for a decoder ring. The ring is a promotional item for the old radio program Little Orphan Annie that was on the air from 1930-1942. By sending in labels from Ovaltine drink mix, he gets a decoder ring that allows you to decode a secret message at the end of each program.

He checks the mail impatiently every day and when it finally arrives, he tests it out. The “secret message” turns out to be a promotion saying “Drink more Ovaltine.” Scam! Deceit and disillusionment.

I was not immune to such subterfuge as a kid. Annie’s ring was before my time but I did get a decoder ring at a store and so did my friend Kenny. (Yes, one of my closest friends was also a Kenny – it was a popular name at the time.)  Of course, we had no secret messages to decode but we used it in school to pass encoded notes in class. We were actually hoping to get caught, and of course, we did. But no teacher ever decoded our notes. We figured that we had baffled them, though probably they just weren’t interested enough to figure out what two  10-year-old boys were writing.

Our decoder, like Annie’s ring, used one of the simplest and most widely known encryption techniques called the Caesar Cipher. (The one shown here is from Amazon.) It is a type of substitution cipher in which each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. For example, with a left shift of 3, D would be replaced by A, E would become B, and so on. So “blog” would become “eorj.”

The method is named after Julius Caesar, who, according to Suetonius, used it in his private and military correspondence. (I was a Caesarian birth so I felt some kinship with the Emperor and widely avoided any kids named Brutus or Cassius.)

dick tracy

There were lots of cheap, gimmicky toys that I bought as a kid. A good number came through ads in comic books or magazines. What kind of “detective kit” would you expect Dick Tracy to send you for fifteen cents?  Paper goods…

The best deal was “free” as in what you got inside a Cracker-Jacks box or in cereal. It was irrelevant to kids that free meant your parents had to buy the product. They were the fast-food giveaways of the 50s and 60s.

cereal box

I had several diving frogmen and submarines from cereal boxes. You loaded some baking soda in a compartment and dropped them in the batub and the resulting foaming bubbles sent the toy up and down in the water. Fascinating for a day.

Those original giveaways – and their more modern-day counterparts – are pretty collectible if you look online.

sea monkeys

I did send away for “sea monkeys.”  This novelty aquarium pet was no monkey but it was a type of brine shrimp. They were sold from 1957 into the 1970s, mostly via comic book ads. The brine shrimp did “hatch” and did  jump around in a monkeyish way, though you needed a magnifying glass to really see them.

They didn’t live very long but they were a kind of science project for me. I read up on them and learned a big word: cryptobiosis.  Cryptobiosis or anabiosis is a metabolic state of life entered by an organism in response to adverse environmental conditions. Maybe they get dried out (desiccation – like these shrimp) or frozen or lack oxygen. They go into a cryptobiotic state when all measurable metabolic processes stop. Suspended animation. Like space travelers in sci-fi stories or Walt Disney’s head. When environmental conditions return to being hospitable, the organism will return to life. I brought those shrimp back from the dead! Frankenstein or a modern Prometheus!  The power was rather heady.

xray specs

For me, the biggest disappointment was the X-Ray glasses. Those ads were always in comic books and I read a lot of comic books.  I was not terribly interested in seeing the bones in my hand. I wanted the Superman vision and the girls at school were the object of my new superpower.

They didn’t work. How could they possibly work, cost a dollar and not be a scientific revolution? If you’re thinking that this is all nostalgia and gullible kids from decades past, think again. You can still buy those X-Ray specs/spex.  I found them on Amazon.

I assumed that the FTC had taken them off the market or at least made them change the product description. The current product description is excerpted below [with my emphasis and comments].

The Original X-Ray Vision Spex . These crazy cool specs are the same ones that went wild back in the 50’s! The Original X-Ray Spex allow you to see bones through skin and to see through clothing! Amazing X-Ray vission guaranteed.  [Does their misspelling of vision let them off the hook legally?] Bright lights help to form the illusion just simply hold your hand towards the light spread fingers and see the bones. [How bright would that light have to be ?!] You can use them at night and mystically see the words X-Ray on every distant point of light. [Not that mystical – the words are printing on the lens] Take X-Ray spex to parties, get-togethers, schools, and hospitals. Your teachers, friends, and family will beg you to try these amazing glasses. They always work and they are loads of fun! X-Ray Spex make great gifts for doctors, radiologists, financial advisors, stockbrokers, and airport security personnel. [An interesting group, but yes, as a gag gift they might be fun.]  For over 40 years, these mesmerizing specs have amazed millions of people all over the world. 

I’m sure every decade has its X-Ray specs and sea monkeys. What was one of your childhood consumer disappointments? Leave a comment.

In the Words of Voltaire

“I may not agree with what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire, pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, born November 21, 1694, in Paris, France. His nom de plume is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, and the first letters of the phrase le jeune, which means “the young.”


During his lifetime, Voltaire wrote nearly 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. I don’t recommend that you follow his writing habits.  He was said to have enjoyed nearly 40 cups of coffee every day, all while in bed, dictating his writing to secretaries.

But I would recommend reading him if you never have before.


Quotations are not like reading Voltaire in context, but they might pique your interest in his writing. I’ve been seeing a lot of his quotes online lately as they seem to be relevant to current situation. The one above is a good example of that.

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. His fame is based on his wit, his criticism of Christianity (especially the Roman Catholic Church) and his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

He wrote plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and scientific expositions., and he was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally.

quoteThe account of the end of his life, according to Wikipedia, is unconfirmed. What we do know is that in February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” You might think that “adoring God” would be an odd thing for him to write, but he did not have a quarrel with God but with organized religions.

He recovered, and in March he saw a performance of his play and was treated by the audience as a returning hero, but became ill again and died on 30 May 1778.

The accounts of his death are varied and we can’t precisely know what occurred. Some of his enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites from a Catholic priest. Others said he wouldn’t repent and so died in agony of body and soul. His adherents told of his defiance to his last breath. A story has developed in modern times that is likely to be true but fits with his views and wit. When a priest urged him to renounce Satan, he replied, “This is no time to make new enemies.”

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” is one of his famous quotes and he meant that though he believed in God if someone proved God didn’t exist, people would have to invent God. Christopher Hitchens  disagrees: “Thus, though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with.”

A few others:
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
“If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”


Then again, Voltaire also said “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night” because he recognized that a belief in God could lead people to morality. His belief seems to have fluctuated. After a natural disaster that killed many people, Voltaire wrote “God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.”

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.

In 1791, the National Assembly of France, regarding Voltaire as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in the Panthéon. An estimated million people attended the procession and an elaborate ceremony.

Voltaire’s tomb in the Paris Panthéon

Einstein at Princeton

Albert Einstein
Einstein on the steps of his Princeton home. It’s a photo I have always liked because as a young person I had several pairs of those fuzzy slippers and thought Albert and I had a kind of connection. Photo: Historical Society of Princeton

I have admired Albert Einstein since I was a young teen.  I believe my early attraction was to him was because he was “the genius” of that time and because of some quotations of his I saw that I loved – and the photos of his crazy hair, riding a bicycle and sticked out his tongue that made this genius seem human. I bought a poster of him that had the quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which at the time probably made me feel better about my solid “B” average in school. It was years later that I saw that famous quote in context. That sentence is followed by “For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

When I was a student at Rutgers College, I drove to nearby Princeton, New Jersey to find the little house he had lived in at 112 Mercer Street for the last part of his life. It wasn’t a museum and there were no markers to say that he had lived there. I was once told on a walking tour of the town by the Historical Society of Princeton that Einstein and his family did not want it to become a museum. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. I also learned that when I visited in 1971, the house was owned by his step-daughter Margot Einstein who lived there until her death in 1986.

I have always liked the town of Princeton and the University campus looks the way I had imagined as a teenager that college campuses were supposed to look. It seemed like a good place for Albert Einstein to live after he escaped Nazi Germany.

Today I read that it was on this day in 1933 that Albert Einstein officially moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University, and I discovered something disturbing about that arrival.

Einstein was visiting the United States in February 1933 and he realized that he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis under Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his wife Elsa were returning to Europe in March and learned that the German Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, which transformed the government into a de facto legal dictatorship with Hitler as Chancellor. They could not go on to his apartment in Berlin.

They later learned that the apartment and their summer cottage had been raided and all his papers confiscated. When they landed in Antwerp, Belgium, Albert went to the German consulate and surrendered his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship. They found out years later that their cottage had become a Hitler Youth camp.

Einstein's Princeton home today

Einstein received offers from all over the world, including Paris, Turkey, and Oxford University, but he decided that Princeton’s offer of a teaching position at the Institute for Advanced Study, a home, and a good salary far away from Europe was best.

What I only learned today was why he hesitated about coming to Princeton University.

The University had a covert quota system that only allowed a small percentage of the incoming class to be Jewish. The Institute’s director, Abraham Flexner, was worried that Einstein would be too directly involved in Jewish refugee causes, so he carefully controlled public appearances, including declining an invitation to meet with President Roosevelt at the White House. Eventually, Einstein found out about the missed opportunity and called Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged for a visit. There is a letter he wrote to a rabbi friend of his about the incident. The return address on the letter is “Concentration Camp, Princeton.”

That was 1933. Did the campus become more welcoming to Jews as a possible war with Germany seemed more likely?  Five years after Einstein settled on campus, incoming freshmen at Princeton University ranked Albert Einstein as the second-greatest living person. They ranked as the greatest living person Adolf Hitler.