Friday, January 29, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 2- The Early Years

As a child I lived in the shadow of World War II; an event so cataclysmic in its nature that it colored the existence of our daily lives even in the summer of 1957 when I was three years old and Mom lost the car and then hit the hydrant. It was the last time she would ever drive, although she maintained a current NY State Drivers License until the day she died some 28 years later.

Mom was challenged when it came to driving- she often misplaced the 3,000 pound Plymouth Belvedere; a black and tourquoise 1953 model that would have stuck out in an aerial photograph of Woodstock. But here we were, July 1957 , wandering the lot at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, NY.

The day had been the usual one of magic for my brother Mark and I, sandy sandwiches brought from home with thermos of cold milk. Bologna still only taste right to me if it has a little crunch to it. We would undress behind a towel that my mother would hold up to give us some privacy as we changed from our swim suits back to street clothes for the trip home. Dad couldn’t stand to have sand in the car.

But this day was not ending properly, I could tell by the worried look on her face. She had lost the car-again! My mother was an attractive, petite woman and soon we were riding in a police tow truck up and down the rows of cars looking for ours. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that we started at the furthest point from where we had left the car. But Mom and the policeman seemed to be enjoying the conversation and I felt safe.

But let me get back to the War and how it colored our lives- not in an unattractive sort of way- but in a dark and romantic hue- borne of the tales my Mom told of the submarines sinking ships 10 miles off Coney Island, the oil washing ashore. The blackouts and the sirens, rationing coupons and Victory Gardens. And the Holocoust. This was the dark part- evidently there had been a German guy named Hitler who built big ovens and killed people who were Jews. Like 6 million of them! And this was something that we were reminded of each day, whenever we encountered one of the many refugees from the concentration camps, with their blue numbers tattooed on their wrists for all to see. The living remnants of “mans inhumanity to man..."
The war was everywhere- in the records my parents played- big band- Andrews Sisters- Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree. My Uncles Walter and Roy were in the Army and Navy and were the family heroes. Walter was only in Alabama but Roy served at sea and saw plenty of action in the North Atlantic. He would go on to become a Captain and was stationed out of San Diego. Walter took a differnt path.

The ‘50’s are black and white in my memories- I remember getting our first TV in 1956when I was 2 and a half. This was also around the time I got my first bed. We put chairs alongside to keep me from falling out. Times have changed but some things remain the same. We did the identical thing with my daughter some 30 years later.

It was a time of "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet". " I Love Lucy" was THE show. I remember Uncle I being very excited about Sputnik. The first satellite was such a big deal that I remember it although only 2 or so at the time.

When I was about 3 my father caught pneumonia- one of the few times in my life that he would be sick. The next time was in 1964 when he tried the first time to give up cigarettes. He was like a junkie going cold turkey.

Dad had a bet with Dr. Frieri, who had delivered both my brother and I, as well as our Mom. He was old and wise. His full name was A.Francis Xavier Frieri- Italian for sure. He was a combat medic in World War II and had the letter from Eisenhower to prove it. His walls were covered completely with the pictures of the thousands of babies he had delivered. The bet was that if my dad quit for good he would not pay for the visits. My Dad won and Dr. Frieri smoked until he died at about age 90.

This was around the time I began to call my Dad by the unusual cognomen of “Bail”. I suppose it was a three year olds corruption of Bill, his first name. But I never have understood why it was allowed until about age 12. I realized then that it was weird and so I called him nothing until I was 19 and it took some time to become comfortable with calling him Dad.

Whenever my mother was ill, and this was around the time she began her long odyessy- Dr.Frieri would threaten my brother and I with locking us in the closet. If you put you ear to the wall you could hear the other kids that were locked in there for being bad. We were terrified. It was years before I realized that the closet backed up to the waiting room and I was hearing the crying of waiting patients.

My parents set up a chart that cast my brother Mark and I against one another at the age of 4. each week we would get demerits for fighting etc. The one that was the least badly behaved got a prize and the loser had to go along to the store and watch the other get his reward. This would affect our relationship forever.

All in all it was a secure, though strange childhood. I have great memories of going to the roof at 3619 Bedford Avenue on Tuesday nights and watching the fireworks from Coney Island- also nights that we went there and the embers would literally fall on the crowd standing on the beach.

On hot summer nights we rode the ferry to Staten Island just for the breeze- 25 cents for the car and the family. A bargain. One night we saw the water actually split by lightning! It doesn’t get better than that for a 4 year old!

Kindergarten began at PS 197 and I remember the switch from the 48 to 50 star flag in 1959- I think it was June in Mrs. Gerbers class. She wore silk stockings with seams and even at that tender age I was smitten with her.

Around this time my Uncle Walter went to jail for passing bad checks- he was a gambler like his Dad, only not as successful at it. He wound up beholden to the mob and ran the “skim” to Kansas City during the 70’s. The FBI would frequently come calling looking for him. H died in 2000 in Las Vegas. I remember him as a kind and gentle man who gave me rides on his knee and made my Mother very happy.

Grandma Marcus and her maid Mary and her husband moved to LA at this time, causing a rift that never healed. It was like the Dodgers leaving a couple of years earlier- very traumatic for my Mom. Her dad had deserted her before she was even born, and now her Mom was going away, taking with her the woman who had raised her.

First grade was at a Public School in Canarsie-somewhere near Ralph Avenue. We had taken a half of a two family home with the Dalto’s. It was at 1186 East 57th Street. They were Italian and he was a postman. It was a new development and built on swampland. We stayed a year and moved back to the Kings Highway area where we
settled in at 1310 Avenue R at East 14th Street- where I would spends the next 11 years growing up- or avoiding the same.

Desegregation and busing were the big issues of the day. My parents were both very liberal in their political views but we had moved to within 3 blocks of school so that my brother and I could walk there. Now we were going to be "bussed" to a different school and so we had a boycott of school for the first week. The school caved in and we were allowed to attend the schools in our own neighborhood.

Second grade was a time when I formed some freindships that have lasted a lifetime. On the first day of school the teacher called the new kids up front and introduced us to the class- there were three of us- Nadine Cohen, Seth Herman and myself. I'm not sure about Nadine but Seth has remained my closest freind to this very day.

Also in Mrs. Sanders 2nd grade class was Michael Held. He and I had a freindship that went well into our twenties. Seth and Michael were at my wedding in 1986 with Seth as the Best Man.

My first memory of Seth is of his having broken an arm,jumping or falling,with Seth it's hard to tell, from a garage roof. His was the first cast I had ever seen.I remember helping him on with his coat at lunchtime.

My first memory of Michael is when we had to send Invitations to our parents for the school play. He wrote "Hey ma, give me money for ice cream" on his and got in trouble for it. Looking back I'm thinking that it wasn't bad sentence structure for someone in 2nd grade!

So these were my beginnings. I would live at 1310 Avenue R until just prior to High School Graduation. My world consisted of Kings Highway between Ocean Avenue and Coney Island Avenue to the East and West and as far as Sheepshead Bay to the South.

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