In My Backyard


The following short story was written by Joni Scanlon for "Metuchen Musings 2008," volume four of an annual publication by Writers of Metuchen.  Joni is also the founder and principal of Scanlon Communications. An award winning professional with over 20 years experience in the communications field, Joni is a former journalist and newspaper editor.  We are grateful she has allowed us to share this story with you.  


Joni and Bobby.jpegOn a sunny afternoon in early summer 1966, I'm standing in our family's brand-new above-ground swimming pool, which has just starting filling from a garden hose hooked over its side. Cool water barely covers the tops of my pale white feet, then slowly inches up my calves, over my knees, and wraps around my thighs on a steady climb to its ultimate depth of four-and-a-half feet. The pool's blue vinyl lining, with its oddly appealing petrochemical scent, defines what new should smell like.


A swamp once ran through my backyard, beneath the very spot where the swimming pool would later stand. But the swamp disappeared from the landscape soon after I was born, giving way to yet another 1960s-style subdivision of splits and capes, with streets named after trees or presidents or the builder's female relatives. Like my parents, most of the newly arrived families who bought houses in my neighborhood were working-class refugees from New Jersey's failing cities--Newark and Jersey City mostly--who had  found their version of the American Dream in cheaply built $15,000 split-level houses. That these homes were built on dredged fill wasn't something they worried about. Back then, no one had heard about Love Canal. No one thought that what was in the ground could hurt you.

Almost everyone I knew had a swimming pool in their backyard--above-ground pools having recently come into vogue for the working class--and so the summers were a kind of "moveable feast" for us neighborhood children. Proudly wearing our newly fashionable two-piece bathing suits, we'd pool hop from backyard to backyard, leaving one pool for the next when we got bored with whatever game was being played--games like Marco Polo, or dolphins and mermaids, or diving for coins. Sometimes our parents would join us in whichever backyard we wound up in at dinnertime, and then there'd be impromptu cookouts with burgers and dogs and buttery corn on the cob. On the radio, Dean Martin singing "Everybody Loves Somebody" and Tom Jones asking, "What's New Pussycat?"


My family's pool went up during my seventh summer, but digging out the hard earth to level the ground was a project started some months earlier, largely by my father and the other neighborhood men over the course of several weekends. The work seemed slow and laborious, but the men most likely enjoyed it, especially at the end of the day, when they'd lay down their shovels and open cans of Schaefer--"the one beer to have when you're having more than one"--as the advertising jingle went. Filthy in their sweat-drenched T-shirts, the men seemed old to me, but they were probably no more than 31 or 32, much younger than I am now.


Somewhere around the middle of the digging project, a shovel made contact with a foreign substance, emitting a loud clang, clang, clang, and the laborers paused in amazement as they recognized the distinct sound of metal striking metal. Excited, intrigued, they closed in on the spot, putting their muscle behind each thrust to find out what lie buried beneath the soil. Within minutes, news of an imminent discovery spread around the neighborhood, and our backyard filled with curious onlookers.


As dirt was brushed away from the foreign object in the soil, it became clear that whatever it was . . . . well, it certainly was not the buried treasure chest I'd hoped for. But disappointment gave way to wonder as we slowly realized that what the men had found that day was a ship's anchor.  Indeed, a rusty, dirt-encrusted ship's anchor was buried right there in my own backyard, buried nearly a mile from the nearest coastline. How in the world did that anchor get into my backyard? How had it come to be deposited right there, in the precise spot where my family's new vinyl-lined aluminum pool would soon stand?


Lifted majestically from the ground to be admired like a prized specimen, the anchor remained a fixture in our backyard for many years.  Probably my father had his own ideas about how the anchor had gotten into our yard, but it really never occurred to me to ask. Perhaps I didn't want to know, didn't want to spoil the mystery.


But of course, I understand now. Long before the first environmental laws were passed, dredge spoils were frequently used to fill cheaply acquired swampland. I suspect my own yard was filled with soil dredged from a heavily polluted shipping channel just a few miles away along the New Jersey Turnpike.


The idyllic neighborhood of my childhood would turn ugly just a few years later, when it seemed that every family who had ever lived on my street was touched by cancer. I didn't connect the deaths until the teenaged boy who taught me how to drive at 17 succumbed to a rare and lethal form of cancer while still in his 30s. One neighbor said we were the "bad luck street" and moved away. And it seemed we were unlucky indeed, for with each passing year, family after family reported a grim diagnosis--breast cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers I'd never heard of before. My father also died, much, much too soon, from an especially deadly form of lung cancer.


Memories of that long-ago spring, that seemingly magical time when we discovered the ship's anchor beneath layers of tainted soil, are tinged with unbearable sorrow for me now. I was so young then, and it seems to me now the world around me was much younger then too--and would never be so again.


Unfortunately, no. Most of the old neighbors have died or moved away now, so I don't know where the momentum would come from. Plus, God knows what ever happened to the tract developer!


Have there been any efforts at remediation in your old neighborhood in Carteret? It's frightening that routine practices that make perfect sense at the time -- such as using dredge spoils as landfill -- can turn out to have awful consequences for decades.

THanks to everyone for commenting on my story. It truly is amazing what we might find in our backyards (and maybe a little scary)!

What a sad but touching story. So beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it and I hope your family was okay and that your memory is free to recall joyful times in your backyard. (I loved the part about how the smell of the lining defined what new smelled like.) It's still so poignant today. We just can't expect laws to protect us. Financial interest will always matter most. We must always keep informed and maintain a voice in government.

We found an old fireman's badge, horse shoe and a weather vane in our yard. They used a lot of chicken wire, bricks and iron rods or poles to fill in under the ground in our back yard. We did a lot of digging and tossing to clean it up and composted to build up good garden soil. It was a lot of work but it was worth it.

Hi - Just want to reassuare everyone that the town I grew up in wasn't Metuchen, but Carteret. My elderly neighbor remembers how as a boy he canoed through the swamp that is now my old neighborhood!

I've forwarded the comment along to Joni to see if she'd like to elaborate but she did not grow-up in Metuchen.

where did you live?

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  • Joni Scanlon: Unfortunately, no. Most of the old neighbors have died or read more
  • Kirk Petersen: Joni, Have there been any efforts at remediation in your read more
  • Joni Scanlon: THanks to everyone for commenting on my story. It truly read more
  • Anonymous: What a sad but touching story. So beautifully written. Thanks read more
  • Lynn: We found an old fireman's badge, horse shoe and a read more
  • Joni Scanlon: Hi - Just want to reassuare everyone that the town read more
  • Teri Coleman: I've forwarded the comment along to Joni to see if read more
  • Anonymous: where did you live? read more

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