In the spring of 1983, when I was 10, my family moved from suburban-Philly-on-the-Jersey-side to a small seaside town at the end of the state. I went from row homes & friends I’d known since infancy to the sound of the Ferry horn jerking me awake & knowing virtually no one. I attended my new school for the remaining 5 weeks in the school year, long enough to make rudimentary friends with some kids my age.
While I would have been perfectly content to spend my summer with familiar friends in the Little House on the Prairie books, or taking up residence at the local library when I was pleased to have my own card, my mother banished me to the outdoors every afternoon when her shows were on. I didn’t mind.
I’d walk on the beach up at the bay & watch curiously as the horseshoe crabs dragged themselves up the sand to mate. Sometimes I’d map the neighborhood, which is essentially a mile by mile grid, scribbling my findings in a little Holly Hobby notebook I’d attached to the front basket of my bike with a rainbow heart shoelace. “The house on Kenvil Road with the yard full of crochet flowers” or “Stay away from Miramar Ave: creepy guy in dirty, orange Beetle.” The usual ten year old observations. It was also the summer of the frogs. Living near marsh & bay was an ecological mystery to me. New bugs, new birds, and frogs.
“GODDAMN FROGS”, my dad bellowed the first time he mowed the lawn, with our new gas-powered mower. Our old push-mower that served us well on a small patch behind the previous row home was no match for the much larger yard.
“I started mowing over there, by the garage, and thought I was running over rocks, and then there were frog guts & blood & JESUSCHRIST!”, my dad howled, sputtering from laughter & disgust.
I found them endlessly fascinating: small, vaguely wet & slimy, unpredictable. It made me wonder if they were pet-worthy. I knew bringing them in the house was out of the question, so I built a makeshift terrarium from a large, shallow metal tub complete with beds of crabgrass, wet sand, flowers.
I captured about 5 or 6 & placed them in their new digs. Every day I “fed” them by adding new grass & leaves, adding more water to the sand, cleaned out the sand with frog poop. At night I pulled a piece of paneling over the top of the tub, wished my little frog charges sweet dreams.
But I thought they might be getting bored. I knew I was. I’d been messing around with old bricks behind the garage & some scraps of wood. Inadvertently, I’d made an obstacle course for frogs, complete with ramps & holes to squeeze through & the piece de resistance, a foot-long drop into a plastic bowl of water, not unlike the Steel Pier horses of Atlantic City.*
Every afternoon, during my scheduled “outside time”, I ran those poor damn frogs through the paces, using an old stopwatch my mother had given me, encouraging them to stay on course by gently nudging them with a stick. I kept their times charted in a separate notebook, giving them what I considered “racehorse” names such as Big Legs Mama & Slime Chin Sneakers.
As the summer drew to a close, my mother prodded me to set the frogs free one day when we were shopping for school clothes, by appealing emotions, saying my captive frogs’ families probably missed them. So when we returned home with ribbon barrettes & ruffly shirts, I set the frogs free without fanfare.
The subsequent summer yielded us less frogs. I don’t know whether word had gotten out in the amphibian community about a giant who frog-napped residents & forced them into circus life or that my dad had simply mowed them all down over the course of a year. I’d moved on from the frogs, now with friends to go watch the horseshoe crabs mate or to ride our bikes to the local community pool where we’d make ourselves sick on chocolate licorice.
The old bricks are still behind the garage, the ones with the holes that would stymie Slime Chin Sneakers & I’d have to push him through after some mild admonishment. Every time I take something to the garage, I check to see if they remain. And I laugh a little at my earnestness during the summer of 1983, the Summer of the Frogs.
*This behavioral experiment with obstacle courses would repeat itself several years later in what is known as “The Great Seventh Grade Hamster Debacle”. But that’s another story.