Good Evening
Good Evening

‘The country’ was a boy’s wonderland

Philip Greco of Smithtown, left, in about 1948

Philip Greco of Smithtown, left, in about 1948 with his mother, Mary Greco, and younger brother, Frank, at the family's campground in Wheatley Heights. The family lived then in Queens. Credit: Frank Greco

As a boy growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I was blessed to have a magical place on Long Island to spend many summer days. My family called it simply “the country.”

In the mid 1940s, my grandfather purchased 4.5 acres high on a hill. Today, the area abuts Landscape Drive in Wheatley Heights. There are some well-kept homes and athletic fields, but decades ago, it was thick woods.

After clearing some land, Grandpa and the family erected a 10-by-12, two-story shed that became our sleeping area. An outhouse was built 50 feet behind it. There was no electricity. A well at the bottom of the hill provided water. And over time, a huge vegetable garden emerged as the centerpiece of the property.

I loved that place, the fresh air, the enchantment of the woods, the quiet. This was nature at its best, simple and beautiful.

In the morning, I would awaken energetic and eager. I’d slide down a ladder to the first floor, and go with my mom to pick blackberries along the road.

I inhaled the damp morning air, with its glorious freshness. My grandparents would already be weeding and pruning in the garden. The aroma of coffee percolating on a Coleman stove meant that the day had officially begun. Breakfast might be cereal or our just-picked blackberries in milk with a sprinkle of sugar. It was a great way to start the day.

Later, my younger brother, our cousins and I helped Grandpa around the property. We hauled compost to the garden in a wagon, drew water from rain barrels and carried it in galvanized pails to the garden, and cut grass and weeds with a handheld scythe. It was satisfying and fulfilling work.

Afterward, we explored the woods, looking for buried treasure. We made up games and did a dozen other things little boys do when boredom is dominated by imagination.

At day’s end, Mom and Grandma prepared a delicious dinner of pasta with vegetables from the garden. As night fell, lanterns were lit and the cooks played Chinese checkers.

Grandpa would take his recorder flute from its case and play tunes from his youth in Italy. The rest of us gathered around the horseshoe-shaped fire pit, transfixed by its flickering colors as we imagined mysterious glowing formations in the embers. A cloaked tranquility enveloped us as the fire crackled.

When a whippoorwill sounded its nightly call, Mom would announce that we should wash up and get ready for bed. Of course, there were no beds, only a couple of old mattresses laid out on the second floor of the shed. As I dozed off, I could hear my grandfather’s muffled footsteps outside as he made his final rounds. It was comforting, it was reassuring, it was Long Island and it was heaven.

Reader Philip Greco lives in Smithtown.