The human thought process changes little as the pages of the calendar of life flip by. Our DNA is coded to accept what is before our eyes as being as it always was.
Subliminally, the elderly person was never young, the kitten would never grow into a cat, and the shopping center was always there. But though we know otherwise that realization seems to somehow elude the cerebral cortex of our brain.
The Bohacz and Demchuk Families entered this blessed land more than 120 years ago, through Ellis Island, from their birth in Ukraine, disembarking in New York City.
As a child, our small family had relatives that spanned from the western tip of Long Island to northwestern New Jersey, where I hail from. That is a reach of approximately 150 miles, with the five boroughs of NYC being the midpoint.
This conga line of kinfolk meant that I was exposed to an eclectic array of lifestyles and communities during visits as a boy. Most of these good folks were extended family and, if the truth be told, were my grandmother’s friends from their village in the Old Country and had no bloodline to us. Yet, we were all “family” and not in the dysfunctional way that has become the norm today.
At a very young age, this buffet of lifestyles proved to me that I wanted nothing to do with the city or suburbs. Our Lord made me a country boy. The same did not hold true for my sister, who is five years my senior, though we grew up eating the same food and breathing the same air.
Traveling east from Queens, New York (a borough of NYC), you enter Nassau County, no longer part of the city. The farther east you went, the more rural it got. Within a few miles of the border, the area was quickly changing from rural to suburban, and an image was branded into my soul.
I was probably around five or six years old and was riding in the back of our 1963 Chevy II 100 station wagon. We had not been in that area for about one year. There was a farm along a road called Sunrise Highway. I recall a farmhouse resembling ours, but it had a farmyard that separated it from a barn and silo.
On that day, I perceived the place looked sad, even though the cows, Holsteins, were still there. About 500 feet away was now a store the size we had never seen, called Great Eastern. There was also a traffic light on Sunrise Highway and more cars on that road than I had seen collectively in my life.
The lights from the store’s parking light glared onto the farmyard as it was just about dusk. We were stopped at the new traffic light. I spotted who I believed was the farmer, carrying a large pail toward the barn. His gate and body language clearly revealed the brokenness of his soul.
I looked in surreal disbelief at the juxtaposition of the farm, department store, traffic light, and congestion, as it shattered my innocence from the back of that little Chevy. The light turned green, and my dad slipped the clutch on the three-on-the-tree transmission, and the 194 cubic inch engine propelled us away.
But it was too late for me… the image was permanently branded into my soul.
It was way past dark when we got back to our farm. The drive was full of angst for my young mind. In the sixteen hours that we were gone, would my beloved farm and dirt road be changed into something like I just experienced in Long Island? Would I not recognize her?
Tears welled in my eyes as I blamed myself for being giddy about the day trip and not studying the farm and road better, never thinking I may lose it. Did I take all of this for granted? I closed my eyes tightly and said a silent prayer. Then, I used all of my strength to conjure a permanent image of our farm and dirt road to be forged into my memory.
As we pulled the hill from Hackettstown… it still looked the same. Then, as the single T-3 headlights from the Chevy pierced the rural darkness like a tunnel, we approached our dirt road. With a sigh of relief, it was still there… for now.
Then in 1974, the fear that took hold that day in Long Island arrived. The township announced that they were going to “improve” my beloved Catswamp Road. Through eminent domain, they were going to widen, realign, and change the grade of it. In addition, the plan included taking down our barn and farm equipment shed.
My father had to fight to get funds of any consequence of the loss. Also, it was now illegal to have a septic pipe run under the road, so that needed to change. Thankfully, the slowness of bureaucracy, even back then, meant that nothing happened for the next three years, but it all did in 1977.
The death of my soul was like slow-growing cancer instead of the tragedy of a fatal car crash. Though I had time to accept this change, I never truly did, even to this day.
I always loved machinery, but when I heard the semi with its two-stroke Detroit Diesel pull onto my road with the first piece of equipment, I sneered at it as a murderer.
After the engine shut off, the final sound I heard was the air brakes discharging, a metaphoric bell tolling the end of the life I knew.
I ran through the cornfield into the woods and wept. My heart is still in anguish today, 44 years later, though the tears are only visible in the depths of who I am.