My Life Changes
A Memoir by Scott Ocamb
We were driving through the countryside near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1965, and I was in a terrible mood. I was eight years old then, and my brother Randy was four. We had recently moved from East Norriton, a suburb of Norristown. I had left all my friends behind, and I missed David the most. Dad looked over at me.
“What’s wrong, Scott?”
Dad smiled. “you’ll get used to it here, I promise. You may even like it here someday.”
Each Sunday after church, my father would take my brother and I on a ride in the countryside, and we would get lost on purpose. We would then work to find our way home.
“Someday, there will be a big lake here,” he said. “They are going to build a huge dam that will flood everything we see.” As we drove around the countryside, he would tell us when we would be “underwater.”
Mom never came on these rides, so I got to sit in the front seat. I was actually happy about that, but I really didn’t care about the goddamned lake. I missed my old home. “Are we underwater yet, Dad?” I asked indifferently.
“No, Scott, not yet.”
Our home in East Norriton was part of a cookie-cutter tract development of small two-bedroom ranchers placed right next to each other. My best friend David lived next door, and we would play every day.
My friends and I would run around the back yards in our neighborhood playing “army,” and jumping back and forth over the small stream that flowed through the area. We would “shoot” each other with our guns—that is, sticks we found in the nearby woods.
During one of these games, David and I were chasing Mark. I ran past a large willow tree, pushing the branches aside, and hid under a footbridge that crossed the stream. I aimed carefully at Mark.
“BANG!” I yelled. “Mark, you’re dead.”
“No, I’m not. You missed.” Mark ran down the stream toward a ravine a few hundred yards away.
I ran after him with David. “He cheats,” I said.
“Never mind. I’m going to circle around his house from the other side, and we’ll capture him. He won’t get away from both of us.”
I liked David’s plan. I saw him make a hard left, running as fast as he could.
I ran after Mark. “BANG, BANG,” I yelled as I did.
“Ha. Missed again.”
I knew I’d missed him; I wasn’t even aiming at him.
Mark made his way into the ravine. It had steep, tree-lined walls and many places to hide. I thought we would never find him.
But there he was, peering out from behind a tree. He saw me!
“You couldn’t hit a barn door.”
David was quietly sneaking up behind him.
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see, smart guy,” I said.
David was now directly behind Mark, pointing his gun at him. “Drop the gun; hands up!” he yelled.
Mark wheeled around and saw David. “What?! That’s not fair.”
“Give it up; we have you,” I said.
From off in the distance, we heard, “Boys, who wants some Kool-Aid?”
It was Mark’s mom. “Coming, Mrs. Whistler,” we said, and ran down the stream and up the hill to Mark’s back porch. There was a large pitcher of bright red cherry Kool-Aid and ice on the table. Little droplets of water clung to the outside of the pitcher. We all guzzled down an ice-cold glass.
“That tastes great. Thanks, Mrs. Whistler,” I said. She smiled at me as she cleaned up the dishes.
We played army for the rest of the day. After what seemed like only a few minutes, I heard from the distance, “Sc-aaa-tt, time for dinner.” “Dinner already,” I thought.
“That’s my mom; gotta go.” I ran off toward my house.
I opened the back door and walked into our kitchen. Mom, Dad, and Randy were sitting around a small table. A large pate of goulash was steaming on the table, ready to eat.
“Please pass the goulash,” I said. I served myself a large portion.
“Pass it around to the rest of the family, Scott,” Mom said.
“OK, here you are.” I passed the dish over to Dad.
“You won’t believe what happened today!” I said around a mouthful of food.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Scott, and slow down,” Mom said.
I swallowed my food. “Well, we were playing army, and I shot Mark. He said I missed, but I didn’t. We got him, though, ‘cause David and I captured him. Then we had Kool-Aid that Mrs. Whistler made for us.”
“Can I play army with you next time, brother?” Randy asked.
“No, and my name is Scott.” I hated it when he called me brother.
“Scott, be nice,” Mom said.
“I don’t want him tagging along with my friends, he has his own friends.” Mom gave me that look.
After a bit, I noticed Mom and Dad exchanging glances as they ate dinner and smoked their cigarettes.
Dad stubbed out his cigarette and placed it in the half-full ashtray. “Boys, there is something important we need to talk about.” Randy and I exchanged confused glances. “We are going to be moving soon to an exciting place in the country.”
“Why, Dad?” I asked. “I love it here.”
“Me too,” Randy said.
“You know your father has a new job. It’s too far for him to drive there each day, so we need to move,” Mom told us, reaching for her cigarette.
My father had recently accepted a new position as a general manager of a six-man machine shop. He met the owner of Clymer Machine Shop because of his position selling machine tools for Warner and Swasey. My father grew up during the Great Depression. He had never liked working for a large corporation, and when Lester Clymer offered him a position running his machine shop, he jumped at the chance.
“We’re going to drive up to our new house this weekend. It’s in Quakertown,” my father said. “I’m sure you will love it.”
“Yeah sure, whatever,” I said.
Mom cleared the table, and Randy and I walked away.
What am I going to do now, I thought? My head was spinning. Everything I loved was going to be lost.
Later, I shuffled outside and ran into David, Mark, and the rest of my friends.
“What’s wrong with you?” David asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s play.” Everyone could tell something was bothering me, but no one else said anything.
The next morning, I made the short walk to the bus stop at the end of the street. David joined me.
“What’s going on with you, Scott?” David asked. This time, he was not going to let me off the hook.
“You won’t believe this,” I moaned. “We’re moving away,” I explained how my father got a new job, and we had to move to a new house in the country.
“What are we going to do? You can’t move away.”
“Don’t worry,” I said confidently. “I will refuse to move. I’m not going anywhere.” The bus arrived, and we climbed on board for our ten-minute ride to school.
* * *
It was Saturday and time to go to Quakertown. I had to go, but knowing I wasn’t really going to move there made the trip a lot easier.
We all piled into our 1962 Oldsmobile Super 88. It was a hot August day, so we ran the air conditioning full blast. Dad drove and Mom sat next to him. Randy and I sat in the back. We pulled out of our driveway and started on our way. Mom and Dad lit up cigarettes as usual.
“Dad, how long will this take?” I asked.
“About an hour.”
We traversed a few small towns on the way.
“Are we there yet?” Randy asked.
“Soon, dear,” Mom said.
Randy coughed and looked over at me. “Come on! Can you two stop smoking?” Mom and Dad often smoked when we were in the car. With the windows rolled up and the air conditioner blasting, it was unbearable.
Mom continued smoking and said, “Sorry, boys. We’ll be there soon.”
After another twenty minutes, Dad said, “Here’s our road.”
We turned down a small, narrow road that had large trees whose branches came right to the edge. We approached a steep hill and started down. A car drove past, much closer than I would have liked. We drove past a road that was all stone and not even paved. Its name was Muskrat Road. You have to be kidding me, I thought.
Randy said, “Brother, this is cool.”
I sighed. We rounded a bend, and on the left side of the road was a log cabin.
“Does someone live there, Dad?” I asked.
We rounded another bend and stopped.
“Here’s our new house,” Dad said.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. Our new home was a white two-story farmhouse that looked old and battered and was only fifty feet off the road.
“Why is it so close to the road, Dad?” Randy asked.
“Well, this house is a hundred and twenty years old. Back then, there were only horses and buggies. People built their homes close to the road.”
“Wow!” Randy said.
We pulled into the stone driveway. It went past the front of the house and circled the back to return to the main road. We parked near the front porch and got out of the car.
An elderly couple came to greet us. “Hello! It’s good to see you!” they said. “These must be your boys.”
“This is Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt,” Mom said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” we said together, exchanging glances.
“Would you two like a tour of the house?” Mr. Schmidt asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yes, sir.”
Mom held the door open as we all walked into the house.
“This is the kitchen,” Mrs. Schmidt said.
“Look how old everything is,” Randy whispered to me. “The sink is old and rusty.”
The kitchen was old. The wood cabinets had faded light-green paint, and the appliances looked like they barely operated. The floor had green and white linoleum with spots worn through to the subfloor.
“Over here is the living room,” Mrs. Schmidt said.
The living room had frayed carpets over a faded hardwood floor.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s called a fireplace. You can build a fire in there and it will warm up the whole first floor,” Mom said.
“You mean we can build a fire inside?” Randy said.
“Yes. But you boys will have to help me chop some firewood,” Dad said.
Mrs. Schmidt smiled. “Let’s go look upstairs.”
We walked back through the kitchen to the stairs that led to the upper floor.
“Be very careful going up the stairs, boys. Stay toward the left,” Mom said.
The stairs were very unusual. They were pie shaped with the wide side to the left. Each step tapered to a point on the right and pivoted upward in a circle to the second floor.
“Here is our bedroom,” Mrs. Schmidt said.
“Why are the clothes lying around everywhere? Where are the closets?” I whispered to Mom.
“Shh. We’ll have to build closets before we move in.”
There was one other bedroom that was much like this one, but smaller. It had hardwood floors and minimal furniture. None of the rooms had a closet. There was one bathroom with old fixtures and outdated tiling.
We walked outside and I noticed a long, faded green building with a smaller building next to it that had a single door.
“Mr. Schmidt, what are those buildings?” I said.
“Well, the long building is a chicken coop. Years ago, we used to raise chickens. The small building next to it is an outhouse.”
“What’s an outhouse?” Randy asked.
Mrs. Schmidt smiled. “That’s where we used to do our business. Ever since we got running water, we use the bathroom in the house. We were delighted when that happened. It was quite cold to go outside in the winter.”
Randy and I exchanged glances. We waited patiently while the grownups spoke. After a bit, Dad said, “Okay, boys. Time to go.”
* * *
We were sitting around the dinner table, quietly eating our meal. Mom made beef stroganoff, which she knew I loved. I was not going to be the first one to speak.
“Well, Scott, what do you think of our new house?” Dad said.
“The place is a dump. Did you see that kitchen? The bedrooms have no closets. Where am I going to put all of my stuff?”
“I know it needs a lot of work. We’re going to fix it up on the weekends until we can move in,” Dad said.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Randy, “and the bathroom is outside!”
“Honey, there’s a normal bathroom inside we can use. The outhouse is from the olden days,” my mom said as she ate a forkful of stroganoff.
“I still think it’s cool. I want to poop outside.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, I’m not going to help fix up that dump. You and Dad can work on it. I’m going to stay here on the weekends and play army with the gang. There’s no way I’m going to move to that place!”
Mom gave me a gentle but firm look. “Scott, we’re moving there. It’s going to be best for all of us. And I bet you’ll like it there after a while.”
“Can I be excused?” I asked softly. “I want to go out and play.”
“Yes,” my parents said at the same time.
“Brother, can I come with you and play?”
“No!” I rushed outside, looking for David.
As I ran out the door, I heard Mom say, “Be sure to be back before dark.”
I saw David immediately. “What was it like?” he said.
I told him all the gory details about the house.
“The bathroom is really outside?” he said.
“Yes. It’s called an outhouse.”
“And the bedrooms really don’t have any closets?”
“And there’s a chicken coop there? Are there chickens?”
“No, David. No goddamn chickens. I have to go up there every weekend and help work on the place. What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure something out.”
It was a tough week. I began to resign myself to the fact that my days were numbered in East Norriton. I went through that week at school on autopilot. I knew we had to go up to Quakertown on the weekend to work on the house. The weekend was coming, and I dreaded it.
* * *
Saturday morning arrived, and we all got into the car for the drive up to our new house. It’s helpful to understand that my father grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression. His family was very poor. When he was a teenager, my dad helped his father build the house they would ultimately live in.
They made the shell of the house first and moved in before the inside was completed. Over time they finished the inside by making trips to the lumberyard when they had the money to purchase a few pieces of lumber. This experience was where my father gained the know-how to perform the necessary renovations on the farmhouse in Quakertown.
“The job today is to remove some of the old items that we’ll be replacing. We’re going to demolish the kitchen and some of the things in the bedrooms upstairs.“ Dad had an eager look in his eyes. “Let’s get started.”
“Boys, as I demolish things, I’ll be throwing them on the floor. I want you to drag them outside and put them in piles. But be careful of the nails.”
“Okay, Dad,” we both said.
Dad took a whack at a kitchen cabinet. Pieces of wood flew everywhere. He placed a large chunk of debris on the floor.
“I got this one,” Randy said.
“Let me help. It’s too big for you,” I said.
“Thanks, brother,” Randy said.
All morning we worked together to demolish the kitchen. There was a large pile of debris accumulating outside. After lunch, we began to work on the bedrooms.
“We’ll start with the bedroom you and Randy will share. Scott, open that window. I’m going to hand you some things, and I want you to throw them out,” Dad said.
“What? You want me to throw stuff out a window?”
I shrugged and threw some wood out the window. I heard a loud noise when it hit the ground.
“Here, you try,” I said as I handed Randy a small piece of debris.
He tentatively walked over to the window and threw it out. He turned back to look at me, smiling. Later in the afternoon, we moved outside.
“Scott, I want you to hook the hose up to the house and bring the other end with the nozzle over there next to that pile.”
“Okay, Dad, but why?”
“We’re going to burn each of these piles, and we need the hose in case the fire starts to spread. I need you to hold the hose and be ready in case we need it.”
I held the hose tightly. Randy and I looked at each other. We had never done anything like this back in East Norriton.
Dad sprinkled some kerosene on the pile. It smelled awful. “Stand back, everyone,” he said.
He lit a match and threw it on the pile. There was a loud whoosh, and a billow of orange flame and black smoke rose into the air.
The fire was large but confined to the pile we made. After a bit, some fire started to burn away from the pile.
“Scott, quick, spray the water on the flame there,” Dad said.
“Okay.” My arms shook as I aimed for the area he indicated.
“Good job, Scott,” Dad said.
It took us about a month to rebuild the kitchen and add closets to the bedrooms. I gradually accepted the fact that we would be moving. I even began to feel that Quakertown would be a place I could enjoy. There was no doubt that I would experience things I never had in East Norriton.
Scott Ocamb is an independent consultant specializing in the agile and lean delivery of software. He has served as an Agile Coach and Scrum Master at numerous firms in the Delaware Valley. He is currently working on a book about his adventures and misadventures he had on motorcycle trips from his younger days. Please see https://www.scottocamb.com/ for details.