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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'An American River'

Paddling the Passaic, New Jersey's longest river -- and a vivid symbol both of what's wrong and right with the Garden State

2.5 American River

Mary Bruno grew up in the 1960s and 1970s along the Passaic River in North Arlington, its waters framing her youth but never to be ventured into. Now a Seattle editor, Bruno returns to New Jersey to kayak the river and write of its lure and dangers -- from nature's serenity to industry's toxic legacy. This is the book's first chapter.

The River

My mother told us not to play by the river, and mostly we listened. But there were times when the riverside beckoned. Like those autumn afternoons when my older brother and I played football on the lawn behind the Homelite plant with our neighborhood pals.

The Homelite lawn was a natural football field, nearly twice as long as it was wide and almost perfectly flat. The grass was a thick, green cushion that was always neatly trimmed, not surprising really since lawnmowers were one of Homelite’s premier product lines. There was no fence to bar our entry. No one ever chased us off. In fact, the Homelite workers in their dark blue coveralls would gather in the asphalt parking lot next to the field to smoke a Chesterfield or two and watch the game.

The parking lot formed the field’s eastern boundary. On the other side of the grass and all along the western sideline was the Passaic River, a slick, dark menacing presence slinking its way down to Newark Bay. Across the river, the opposite bank had been replaced by a corrugated steel bulkhead. The dark armored wall, some 30 feet high, was punctured in places by huge round storm drains. The giant metal mouths, visible at low tide, drooled a frothy runoff into the river.

The bulkhead supported a mile-long, arrow-straight stretch of Route 21. Known locally as McCarter Highway, this particular section of road was a made-to-order speedway. Teenage hoods from Newark would gather there to drag race their GTOs. On summer nights, the whine and squeal of engines and brakes would drift across the river and seep into our dreams.

The Passaic is a tidal river by the time it reaches the Homelite plant. When the tide was in, the water would creep right up to the lip of the field. We never ran sweeps to the river side, always observing a five-foot buffer zone between our play and the water’s edge.

There was another group of kids hanging around the Homelite field one afternoon. They were older kids, strangers to me. They were horsing around at the other end of the field. Kibitzing, my father would have called it. The Homelite workers eyed them suspiciously before ducking into their cars to head home.

When the parking lot had emptied and the sun had nearly set, another boy appeared. He was a husky boy, strong, with straight brown hair and roses in his cheeks. He walked across the grass on the diagonal, a path that took him between our game and the older boys’ horseplay without disturbing either.

He was on his way home from football practice. He was wearing his uniform–Irish green jersey and white pants–and carrying his helmet by the face mask. The chinstrap made a ticking sound as it slapped against the helmet’s plastic side.

I didn’t hear what the older boys said to the football player. He paused, turned in their direction, then proceeded on his way, a little faster than before. They caught up with him at the far corner of the field, the river side. We had stopped our play by then, and stood nearby, in a huddle, watching.

The biggest boy shoved the football player in the chest. The football player shoved back. There was a scuffle and in the midst of it one of the other boys grabbed the helmet.

It was a beautiful helmet, snow white against the gathering dusk, no scuffs or grass stains, its top as smooth and round and shiny as a cue ball. The boys taunted the football player with their prize, yapping and hooting and prancing around him like jackals at a kill.

After a minute or two of this, the biggest boy, the one who started everything, stepped into the circle and claimed the helmet for himself. He raised it over his head and held it there. He locked eyes with the foot- ball player. Then, with a windmill motion of his arm, he hurled the white helmet into the Passaic.

It splashed in upside down, not 30 feet from where we all stood, gaping, near the water’s edge. The helmet righted itself somehow and bobbed briefly, like a buoy, or a skull.

Frantic, the football player waded in after it. He skidded and slipped on the oil-slicked rocks. He sank to his ankles in the river’s black sediment. Knee deep in the Passaic, its water staining his white pants a fecal brown, he tried to rescue the helmet with a tree branch. He managed to snag the facemask, but the river wouldn’t let go.

Any one of us should have been able to dive right in and save that helmet. The water couldn’t have been more than four feet deep where it went down. But we didn’t. And the football player didn’t either. No one dove into the Passaic River.

The Passaic wasn’t fearsome in any traditional sense. It didn’t rage or thunder. It didn’t loll along and then suddenly turn into a boil or hurl itself over a cliff — not this far downstream anyway. It wasn’t icy cold or booby trapped with eddies. It wasn’t even that wide; a dog-paddler could make it all the way across. But the river scared us just the same.

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