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Big Chuck

October 25, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Autumn: 'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year'

Andy Williams likes to sing, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

Except he is usually referring to the tsunami of commercialism and sub-freezing temperatures that herald the December holiday season. As for me, I sing that phrase from the first day of October to the final day of the month.

The autumnal bliss that blankets our region is a veritable Hallmark card to rural Americana. The season invariably takes me back nearly a half-century to when I was growing up in Sidney. I'm sure it is the same for everyone. Only the names are different.

My dad and my brothers and I would spend a full October Saturday raking the leaves that carpeted our big backyard. The neighbor men were out doing the same thing, each shouting World Series updates back and forth over fences. I remember that we all wore plaid. I loved wearing plaid as a kid. It made me feel grown up somehow. I haven't worn plaid in 40 years.

The big event of "rakin' day" was the enormous pile of red, orange and green leaves that would soon be sacrificed to the God of Fire. Dad stood sentinel over the glowing pyre, dutifully holding a garden hose, which he never turned on. My brothers and I watched through the inky sky as tiny, dancing embers came down harmlessly in the distance. And the smell of burning leaves? Sublime.

Our area had a plethora of apple orchards and cider mills, and a trip to the fields was always an adventure. Edmeston, Unadilla, Franklin, Otego, Gilbertsville and beyond ... brother, this was "Apple Country!"

Around mid-October, the Johnsons would open their farm to our whole town. Our mothers would shop at Millie's farmstand, and ol' Walt would drag wagons filled with youngsters behind his big tractor out to see where "the witches lived." And he'd do it from sunup to sundown.

To many in my hometown, Walt Johnson was "Mr. Sidney." To us kids, he was just the friendly guy "who took us on a wagon ride."

Halloween was a night of great excitement in all of the towns that dot our region. Kids would spend hours on their costumes, right down to the littlest item, and then schlep on big winter coats to cover it all up because it was freezing outside. The neighborhoods came alive on Halloween night.

We were clever candy professionals in those days. We knew which houses gave the trick or treaters a pencil or a nickel, and we avoided them like the plague. A pencil? On the other hand we knew the exact directional coordinates of every house that dispensed chewy homemade popcorn balls, or chunks of fudge or even a FULL SIZE Snickers bar. Wow ... that was the mother lode.

Every Halloween night ended the same way, with a stop at Mrs. Logan's house for a candy apple that was heroic. A gigantic round McIntosh apple dipped in a sweet, red, sugary coating and "hard-cracked" to perfection. She'd jam a stick through the core and then wait for the kids to line up at the side door over her grocery store. The resemblance between the "Pied Piper" and Delphine Logan was not lost on the children of Sidney.

I'm sure the dads and kids of Worcester raked and burned leaves together in the old days, too. And I'm certain that Cherry Valley, Franklin and Milford had their own haunted wagon rides. And no doubt the Fly Creek Cider Mill, Willy's Cider Mill, Middlefield Orchards (and all of their predecessors) sold cider and apples by the ton long before today's generation ever stepped foot on a frostbitten October field in Central New York.

Some things change and some don't. I miss going on Mr. Johnson's hayride and I miss my Dad and raking leaves with him like I did when I was a boy. And I sure could go for one of those candy apples of my youth. Alas, they've all flitted away like the amber embers of the backyard leaf piles of my childhood.

But I still revel in taking my kids to the local cider mill (they insist on it, all four of them, from ages 13 to 28). And our Center City neighborhood still comes alive at Halloween time (and yes, our little ones know where the pencils are doled out).

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I agree, Andy.

You're just a couple of months late.

Now where can I buy me some plaid …Catch you in two.

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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