When one thinks of Levittown in the 1960s and 1970s, one thinks of a suburban community where kids played in the street until “called for” by parents, tightly knit neighborhood communities and the Mays shopping center up on Hempstead Turnpike. There were so many great memories tied to the town itself, that it spurred a novel by Manheim Wagner, simply titled Levittown and another by Steve Bergsman, titled Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.
One of my fondest memories about growing up in Levittown was visiting the area around the sumps. My dad’s second cousins lived several blocks away and on occasion, we walked over to their home during the summer months. We often passed the water basin that stood at the corner of Azalea Road and Hilltop Lane to get to their home in the Flower Section. We also passed a small stretch of dirt road that had once been the course for the Vanderbilt Cup auto races in the early 20th century. When we finally arrived at her home, “Aunt Dotty” appeared at the front door with glasses of ice water and lemonade for our parched, overheated throats.
Paul, my younger cousin, often told us tales of the baby frogs that could easily be found at the sumps. My cousin Denise often scoffed at him as she broke out her box of Barbie dolls. My sister and I exchanged glances quickly and decided that, since we did not have a pet, we wanted to head to the sump with Paul to catch a few toads of our own.
Paul was an expert at catching the amphibians. He crouched low in the grass and patiently waited for them to spring up above the high weeds. As he cupped his hands, he told us to keep quiet. My sister and I, who giggled in response, watched intently as we mimicked his crouch. Suddenly, a tiny toadlet hopped into the air. With deft hands, Paul caught it and placed it in a coffee can filled with grass clippings. He popped the top, which was pierced multiple times with a scissor, onto the can and told us to try to catch a toadlet for ourselves.
After what seemed like forever, my sister and I each caught a tiny toadlet. We placed them in the coffee can with Paul’s four toadlets and headed back to Aunt Dotty’s house for lunch. When we arrived, my sister and I announced to Mom that we were going to keep our new pets. Mom, clearly repulsed, stated that nature needed to be returned to the wild. However, after much begging and whining, she relented. We were thrilled.
Paul handed us the coffee can as we left their home and told us not to leave the toadlets in the can for too long. As his eyes rolled in exaggeration, he mentioned that “a few of mine died that way.” My cousin Denise pantomimed a gagging motion and we all laughed as we said our goodbyes.
When Dad got home that night, my sister and I excitedly related our story of the toads to him. We had checked on the toadlets, who were still hopping around in the can for all they were worth. Dad said that they probably needed water and headed outside to relocate them into an old fish tank that sat on a shelf in the garage.
My sister and I set to work to find leaves, tiny green worms and more grass clippings for the toads. We filled that tank with everything we thought might make a great toad habitat. Dad covered the tank with a mesh cover and offered us a smile. While we were not allowed to keep the toads in the house, we assumed that they would be fine outdoors.
The following day, which was a Saturday, Dad went to the garage to perform his weekly chore of mowing the grass. He checked on the toadlets for us and set to the task of finishing the lawn before lunchtime. My sister and I, clearly more engrossed in Saturday morning cartoons, had forgotten about our “pets” until Dad walked into the house. We asked him how they were doing and his face told us everything. We had a small ceremony as we buried them in the backyard beneath the cherry tree.
While this may seem like a sad memory, it was a wonderful experience. Touching the slimy skin of a toad prepared me for baiting a hook without squirming over an earthworm with my dad and years later, with my husband. I learned to respect nature and left it “in the wild,” as Mom had advised. For the record, my cousin Paul’s toads grew to full maturity. He set them free in the sump, where they hopefully happily lived to raise more toadlets.
The water basins, or sumps, of Levittown and Nassau County continue to stand to this day. They collect rainwater, organic and inorganic materials, and have been credited with recharging our underground aquifers. While most are surrounded by a six-foot fence, the sumps in my memory continue to be a place where children of Levittown hunted frogs and other wildlife on warm summer days and sledded down snowy hills on cold winter afternoons.
Patty Servidio is an Anton Media Group columnist.