Fresh air

Posted in worldweary by paulie on April 14, 2011

One day my school arranged for the whole third grade to be bussed to the suburbs. The concern was that it was bad for us to spend all our time in the city, a popular notion at the time. There was even a social program called something like the ‘fresh air fund’ that brought city children to visit the country. Adults sometimes referred to me as a ‘fresh air fund kid’. Social programs did not reach me since my mother would never accept ‘welfare’.

Mr. Cole was our school’s principal and we loved him fiercely, I think because he always managed to convey warmth an love to us. His wife was the principal of another school in the suburbs where the buses took us that day. We spent the morning playing outdoor games on the school’s great lawn and after that we were paired with one of their third graders and went home for the afternoon.

I went home with none other than Mr. Cole’s little son and we played quietly in his room after a lunch made by his mom. They lived in a house! I remember the view from his bedroom (he had his own bedroom!) on the second floor was nothing but the sun streaming through the leaves of a great tree.

When the time came to walk back to his school, board our buses and go home something went wrong with me. I told Mrs Cole I could not go home. She was dutiful in asking me what was the matter and I told her if I went back I would only die. There was quite a stir, consultations with the representative from my school, etc. I was asked to elaborate on my statement and said something about how bad people would get me or I would die in the war (a reference to the Vietnam war. Word on the street was the selection was unfair and if you were selected you went there to die). I even told them about the foreboding I carried about how I was fated to die. I was sent home on the bus, of course.

One day when I was 34 years old and still a fresh air fund kid, I was enjoying a rare day out of the city with my new girlfriend who lived in Queens and had a car. Driving in Long Island I thought saw the school. The memory of that day returned and I was saddened to realize that in those times it was presupposed that survival was too much to hope for. I’d always imagined I held on the the possibilty of growing up, being bigger and stronger and maybe escaping the city and my fate.

I do not know what school I visited but in my memory it resembles this one in the town of Manhasset, NY.


2 Responses

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  1. Anne said, on April 14, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Thanks for sharing the story. It’s really touching. Frederick Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture, began in NYC and was motivated to make the city healthier via parks and open space for all. Trees and open spaces do indeed bring us life, joy, and a sense of well-being in a scary world.

  2. RebeccaFlys said, on May 10, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Hi Paulie, I stumbled upon your blog while searching for a way to get my college to let me do an “Experiential” (internship) for the Fresh Air Fund.
    I hosted for 5 years straight about 9 years ago. Then my girl aged out of the program and one of my kids became ill, so the timing wasn’t right. What I find really interesting is that many of the families in Upstate NY that host aren’t rich. We certainly aren’t. The thing was, our Fresh Air Kid quickly went from being “This is our fresh air daughter” to “this is a friend of our family who visits in the summer.”
    She taught us as much as we ever offered her. Nobody really understood how many little things would tie us all together. Little did she know as she told us about navigating the subways and watching out for this or that, that her little fresh air sister would get sick and end up spending a lot of time in a big city (Boston) that we didn’t have a clue how to navigate. All of our “tell us about the city” questions that she answered set us up to handle that.
    Perspective is such a fickle thing. Cross your fingers that I get to do my experiential would you? And come out and visit the Finger Lakes. That’s NY country!!!


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