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An Ode to Our Little Netcong

December 30, 2016

My friend and fellow Netcong native, Christopher Warnash, recently posted something on Facebook about Netcong which got me thinking about how much I love our hometown. Christopher had said something which particularly struck me and gave me so many thoughts about our town that I want to share them with all of my other fellow Netcong natives.

Christopher said that he and his boyfriend were passing through Netcong when his boyfriend had observed that Netcong appeared “grim.” I thought to myself, well yes, Netcong would appear grim to an outsider. I can certainly see how a stranger driving through would see just a bunch of highways and aluminum sided houses. But we who grew up there know how special it was.

Netcong was a close knit, working class, Catholic town where we all knew each other and in many cases were related to each other.

A surprising number of us were related by blood or by marriage and we kids would brag about how many classmates we could call “cousin.” The Direnzos and DiBernados beat us all because they comprised the largest number of people in Netcong to all be related. They even lived amongst each other in the same hub of Netcong at those four streets near the Sport’s Club (Barone St., North St., Union St and Railroad Avenue). Even if not related, our people went way back together. Debbie Fiorello’s grandfather graduated from Netcong Elementary School with my grandmother in 1912. Back then they were still using the old school building, which unfortunately has been demolished.

My great grandfather lived in a stone house which he had built himself across the street from that school. He had emigrated from Southern Italy, as did most Netcong Italians. They came at the turn of the century for work on the railroad that by then was replacing the Morris Canal as the state’s thoroughfare. It was good work and they sent word back to their relatives and friends that Netcong was the right place to resettle. More Italians came and they, in turn, told even more Italians to come on over to Netcong.

We had so many residents from Italy’s village of Cesa that we celebrated its patron saint, St. Cesario, every year with a parade in the morning and fireworks at night. The fireworks had games and rides and food stands, the most popular of which was the Sausage and Pepper Sandwich stand. Everyone went to those fireworks, even Father LaGatto, who volunteered to sit in the water-dunking booth. Father LaGatto would pinch our cheeks and say, “Che Bella.” He pinched pretty hard but he was such a kind hearted man that we actually wanted those famous Father LaGatto pinches! He played cards with my grandfather, who had come over from Cesa in the 1920’s (my Italian grandmother was already a Netcong native for a generation back). Grandpa, Father LaGatto and a couple of the other more recent Italian immigrants would play cards and drink espresso with a shot of Anisette in it. Not a word of English was spoken; it was all Italian.

Those hailing from a variety of Italian towns other than Cesa banded together and formed the Feast of the Assumption, thus giving us not one but two parades with fireworks. Our little town of less than one square mile had more firework celebrations than any other town in NJ. Even the big city of Hoboken had only one feast with fireworks a year. For us kids having two fireworks was like having Christmas twice every summer!

St Cesario’s and The Assumption’s members were competitive. Likewise, our two firehouses were competitive. The original firehouse was run by Irishmen, who immigrated to Netcong at the mid to late 19th Century. They would not let Italians join. Nevertheless, the two ethnicities got along well enough for many of the Irish Catholics and the Italian Catholics to marry. The Laureys kids are the product of one such Italian/Irish marriage — it was common mix. By the early 20th Century so many Italians had come to Netcong that they overtook the Irish and formed their own firehouse. And so it was that Netcong ended up with two firehouses despite its being less than one square mile!

In fact, Netcong was so small that we could walk clear across it in twenty minutes. Netcong Elementary School had no busses because we were all within walking distance. The Laureys house was the furthest from the school, bordering at the town’s edge with Mt. Olive. I walked home with Debbie Fiorello for lunch as she was closer. A dozen kids from my class alone would walk together down the steep hill heading toward the railroad tracks. Then we’d stop at the tracks and go to The Ditch, that dug out space of dirt between the trees at the tracks where we snuck cigarettes.

Sometimes we would plan a special lunch time and walk downtown to Carmine’s. Carmine was an off-the-boat Italian who spoke English with a thick accent and a sprinkling of Italian words, “Give-a mia uno dolloro,” he’d say. I’d beg my mother for two dollars to buy pizza and candy, which you could actually do with two dollars in the mid-1970’s. After eating we’d all go to the Five & Ten store where two grey-haired, unsmiling sisters would reprimand us for being naughty. They were old and so was the store. It had wooden shelves and real glass cases for the loose candy whereas everything at the brand new Quick Check across the way on Main Street (formerly the A&P), was made of cheap formica and plexiglass.

The spinster sisters seemed at place in that old, solidly built store. They themselves were rather drab looking. One was fat and one was thin and both wore muted gray tweed skirts and frumpy sweaters. The thin one wore those old fashioned panty hose that have less elastic and thus were always loosely crumpling at her ankles. She and her sister would toss us out whenever we were running around and grabbing candy from the wooden shelves. They once said to me, “Do you think your grandparents would’ve gotten so far if kids behaved like this at the ShopRite?” Boy, they were better at making a kid feel guilty than the nuns were!

My grandparents had owned a little Italian market in town from whence they gave credit to struggling families during The Great Depression (Netcong folks always took care of each other), and which they converted to a ShopRite Supermarket after the Post WWII economic boom. They expanded and eventually they had four ShopRites and became quite wealthy. But they never moved out to a more upscale town. Netcong was their home and they were staying.

When we didn’t go to Carmine’s we walked home for lunch as usual, and always stopped by Ogly’s at the bottom of Stoll Street for candy. We drove old Ogly and his wife Mary nuts. But old Ogly knew us all and he knew our parents and families. So he was always friendly and forgiving, even though we were always running around and saying fresh things to him. We especially delighted in making Ogly so mad that he’d say bad words like, “You little pecker head.”

Mary was a woman you noticed with her teased bouffant black hair. She stood at the back making meatball sandwiches while up front Ogly ran the register, which was the old fashioned kind, hewn in ornate chrome with dinging bells to ring you up. When angry, Mary would waive her knife at us kids, but we only laughed. Nobody was frightened of old Ogly and Mary. We would occasionally go to Ray’s for a meatball sandwich rather than Ogly’s but there was no horsing around at Ray’s and hence it wasn’t as much fun. At Ray’s we would see the 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Castaldi, who was related to the store’s owner. She took her lunch break there and helped make meatball sandwiches in the store’s back kitchen.

Another adult whom we all loved was Nick, the Netcong School Janitor. He and Joe the Janitor were both nice guys but Nick was especially kind. He would tease me that Michael LaBell and I should be sweethearts and the fact was that I actually did have a crush on Michael. Whenever we played “Boys Catch the Girls” Michael set his sights on me and would chase me through the playground, the same playground where we played kickball for every recess. My classmates Freddie Trattino, Michael Labell and John Bongiovanni were especially good at kickball, as they were at all sports.

Netcong boys of every grade were wonderfully athletic and when we got to the regional high school that served three different towns, it was always the Netcong boys who reigned supreme in the school’s team sports. Netcong people were recognized as having a unique quality by students from the other two towns. Byram and Stanhope kids were more transient whereas we of Netcong were rooted for generations. Although Netcong was one tenth the size of Byram and Stanhope, it was a Netcong native who served as the school’s Superintendent. My grandmother would call Superintendent Joe Stracco and pester him about various things and he’d always oblige and then thank her for her donations, such as the ShopRite College Scholarships and the gym’s scoreboard. If he didn’t oblige her Grandma would put him in his place saying, “I remember you when you were just a little kid and were the Netcong football team’s water boy!”

Grandma’s brother Joe could be seen walking through town in his dirty pants with a rope rather than a belt around his great big belly. If provoked, Old Joe would tell a kid, “Go jump in a lake you little whippersnapper!” Though the brother of the richest lady in town, Old Joe was too proud to take any money and lived frugally in a little house on Stoll Street. He would attempt to clean his own clothes and hung his enormous underwear out to dry on the front porch railing. You’d drive down Stoll Street and see Old Joe sitting on his porch where beside him were size 56, stained underwear blowing in the wind. The neighbors were splendidly tolerant of Old Joe’s unsightly underwear because they knew him. And they knew that my mother cared for Old Joe and bought him to our house once a week for a shower and dinner. Then Mom did his laundry properly.

Mom was just as proud to hail from Netcong as my grandmother was. Mom got further in school than Grandma (who had finished her schooling at only the 8th grade, as many of the old Netcong folks had), and Mom continued all the way through Netcong High, where she was voted Best Smile! My mother had ten kids which was regarded as a lot but not especially shocking as other Netcong families were also large. Netcong was predominantly Catholic and with birth control verboten by the Church, well, families got large. The Sylvesters had eight kids!

Our town was small but our families were big. Indeed, we were big in all sorts of ways — big in relatives, big in generational history, big in tradition and big in our own special identity as Netcong natives. Netcong was our town and we loved it.

The town has changed a lot these days. The old guard Italians have largely died off and our own generation has all moved out. Netcong is now peopled by transients and a large portion of Latinos (so many that St. Michael’s now has a Mass entirely in Spanish). The state of NJ tore up our quaint little Netcong Circle and built a five lane highway in its place. It’s a busy highway with multiple traffic lights, which were also installed where Main Street intersects with the other highway in town. People who drive through Netcong on those highways go end-to-end in about sixty seconds during which they see a plain little town of no special import. But we who were born and bred there know that it was, in fact, special. Very special. Even now when I drive through Netcong I feel a small pang of love. I love my hometown. I was lucky to have grown up with this unique experience. We all were.

 

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