We moved from East Orange, New Jersey, to New York City in the spring of 1934—the middle of my fourth grade year—and my mother, in the firm belief her oldest son was particularly genius inclined, requested that I be recognized for my achievements.
The city’s Elementary School-year had two segments, A and B. Thus, a typical child in his fifth year of school would begin 5A in September and move to 5B in February. But he might also begin 5A in February. The flexible system permitted more accurate placement based on age and ability levels and made it easy to advance a gifted student or drop a pupil back.
The school obliged my mother. On my first day at P.S. 130 in Bayside, Queens, I was assigned to class 5A, taught by Mrs. Riker, instead of 4B, with Ms. Fogarty—who I soon learned was referred to as “Old Lady Fogarty.” Any sensitive and observant child knew a married woman teacher would be far more stimulating than an old spinster, and pay more attention to her grooming and appeal to others, or so I thought. I was gratified to observe Mrs. Riker was in her mid-thirties, by my youthful estimate, and flirtatious in demeanor. She had it all together.
Unfortunately my romance with Mrs. Riker was short-lived. She did not find me familiar with the subject matter she had been teaching since January and recommended that I be reassigned to 4B. By the end of the day, I was convinced that a struggle with Mrs. Riker would be futile. Better to settle down into obscurity under the tutelage of Old Lady Fogarty. So after my first day in school I told my mother I didn’t like 5A, I didn’t know what the work was all about and I really belonged in 4B.
P.S. 130 was on 42nd Avenue and 201st Street in Bayside, which made the school a 4/10ths of a mile walk from our apartment on 209th Street. Our lunch hour, from noon until 1:00 p.m., was sufficient time to enable us to walk home every day to eat. In the course of walking back and forth to school every day, I noticed a girl about my age who walked at the same time.
Her name was Julia Piezsak, a Polish name. We walked in the same direction along 42nd Avenue, west, towards the school, but she was on the other side of the street. She never looked across towards me, or even smiled. Julia was quiet and shy and I never noticed her at school, but I used to wonder why we didn’t walk on the same side of the street since we were going to the same place. I could have crossed over to her side, or she to mine. But that never happened. And if it had, what if we’d just walked side by side, emotionless, as we were already doing, daring neither to speak nor glance sideways to test the weight of the silent gulf between us?
My elementary school experience was sublime during those depression years. Minor duties, such as being the ink monitor, assumed an importance at the time that I imagine would be shrugged off by today’s children. Ball point pens had not yet been invented, so everyone learned how to use quill pens. These were round, wooden shafts with a small steel pen point inserted at one end. A little nub at the tip caught and held ink as it accumulated. The skill of writing with pen and ink required regulating the ink flow so it didn’t blot the paper. Every school desktop had a small glass inkwell in the upper right corner and a groove to hold a pen and pencils. The ink monitor carried a quart size bottle of ink around class and filled the open glass ink wells on each desk.
Then there was the cookie monitor. Every day at break time the teacher selected one pupil, the cookie monitor, to get the large carton of cookies from the closet and pass it down the aisles to sell cookies to anyone with a penny to spend. Or, if you wanted the large ones that had marshmallow fillings covered with chocolate, you paid two cents, but only if the teacher decided to open that carton on a particular day.
Once a month was bank day. To encourage thrift, a local bank had agreed to open a savings account for any child in the school who wished to participate. We all received deposit envelopes and were allowed to make deposits of as little as a nickel at a time. The PTA awarded a banner once a month to the class that had the highest percentage of banking participants for the month.
The Weekly Reader that was sold through the public schools was my primary source of information about the Italian war in Ethiopia and the resistance of Haile Selassie, as well as the Spanish Civil War. There was a gathering awareness of the impending conflict in Europe and the threats from a resurgent Germany. I had a thirst for information about the warfare that was taking place in remote parts of the world, and the Weekly Reader whetted my appetite.
In fall and early spring, most boys played marbles. My mother made me a draw-string marble bag so I could carry marbles back and forth to school. You needed a flat, hardened-dirt surface to play. Someone would draw a large circle on the dirt with a stick. The diameter would be about six feet. In one game, anyone interested in playing would drop a marble inside the ring. Then the players—one by one, holding their shooters between the thumb and index fingers, with knuckles down, and from any position along the marked circle—would attempt to hit marbles out of the ring. Any target marble knocked out of the ring was kept as a prize. There seemed to be limitless variations on how to play a game of marbles, with rules that could change frequently according to the imaginations of the players.
At one point I got the idea to make marbles into more of a gambling situation. From a local grocery store, I got a Kraft cheese box, a rectangular wooden box about ten inches long by three inches high and three inches wide. With a jigsaw, I cut small openings just wide enough to allow a marble to enter the box. I made five openings and when the box was inverted on the dirt it became a nice target to tempt the skill of a player to toss a marble from a distance and have it enter one of the openings. Then I painted numbers above each opening to indicate how many marbles could be won by any successful player. The numbers would range from about three to twenty. Any thrown marble that bounced off the box without going inside was mine to keep. I could vary the size of the openings and the distance from which a player tossed his marbles, as well as the number of marbles that I painted over each opening, to entice players. This worked well, and my marble bag was bulging.
People were encouraged to grow victory gardens in those days. Through a school program, seed catalogs were distributed in early spring. We could order seed packets for as little as a penny each, which stimulated my interest in growing vegetables at home. My father had taught me how to prepare garden soil when we still lived in East Orange. I remember the excitement of growing my first radishes because they germinated quickly and looked pretty, even though I didn’t like the sharp taste. In Bayside, I enjoyed looking through the seed catalog to make my selections, and one year I even grew popcorn and peanuts.
There were two events that strongly affected me during my years at P.S. 130. In the fall of 1934, I moved into Mrs. Riker’s class, an auspicious event because that is when I met Bill Graves, who had just moved to Bayside. Bill, or Gravy, as I soon nicknamed him, was to become my closest friend and companion for my remaining years in school. After our separate stints in the service during World War II, we remained close friends even while separated by a half a continent, until he passed away a couple of years ago.
I knew Gravy was a unique person from the day I met him. At lunch hour, he sat at his desk, took off his shoes, and demonstrated how he could scratch his chin with his toes. Then, he opened his lunch bag, withdrew a whole onion, and proceeded to munch on it as nonchalantly as if he were eating an apple. That impressed me. We developed a close friendship, playing, Ping Pong in his basement after school or having baseball catches in the street when the weather was nice. Neither Gravy nor I were particularly athletic, although we did some modest climbing together in the Catskill Mountains, as teen-agers, and continued climbing later on after we were both discharged from the service. Later in life Bill became an avid mountain climber and at one point received a citation from the governor of Colorado in recognition for climbing every peak in the state above 12,000 feet.
In those early years Bill was a great baseball fan. He kept records of ballplayers’ batting averages, pitchers’ statistics, etc., and invented a game where we could form imaginary teams by selecting players to cover all the positions on the baseball diamond, complete with pitchers, pinch hitters, etc. Then we would play a regular nine inning game by tossing a pair of dice, the sum of which was calibrated statistically to determine whether a batter got a hit, how many bases, whether a runner on base was forced out, and many other variables. As we grew up, the game grew more and more complicated statistically, but it was easy to play and there was an element of chance because probabilities were based on published averages for each player and the simple toss of a pair of dice.
During my seventh- and eighth-grade years I became more aware of the importance of girls in making life more agreeable for a young boy. I don’t know who actually instigated it but some members of my class decided what a nice idea it would be to get together after school and dance. I think the idea started with the girls, because the boys and girls selected for our club were paired, to begin with, according to height, but the primary basis for pairing probably reflected a subtle measure of compatibility and mutual interest. At any rate, we reached a limit of ten members—five boys and five girls—and began meeting at members’ homes. Our source of music was usually the radio, and there was mutual enjoyment and fun in dancing together.
We named our club The Swing and Sway Club. We elected club officers and began to collect dues, a curious practice because we had no expenses at all. I suppose we achieved a certain notoriety when we opened a savings account through the school and banked our meager club funds along with all the other kids. Thus, The Swing and Sway Club contributed toward gaining the PTA banner for the month.
My dance partner was Lucy Stamb. I began to have a crush on her in 7th grade, and sometimes walked her home from school. Sometimes we would go on a Saturday bicycle trip or a hike to Alley Pond Park. I went to at least one party at her house where we played games like Spin the Bottle and Post Office. The object of the games, of course, was to have an excuse to kiss the girl who interested you.
On September 21st, 1938, the Swing and Sway Club met at my house. It was the day the Great Hurricane of 1938 hit Long Island. In fact, the eye of the storm bisected Long Island from the South shore to the North shore, about fifty miles east of Bayside. We were caught unaware, and our forlorn club members got soaked by wind-driven rain while trudging to my house after school. My family had moved to our third house in Bayside by 1938 and the walk home was now nearly a mile.
Fortunately, my mother was home, and she took charge of the situation by getting the girls into the kitchen and turning the oven on full force so the girls could gradually strip down and dry their clothes on a rack in front of the oven. The boys gathered upstairs in my bedroom, and our wet clothes were sent down to the kitchen until they came back dry. I can’t recall that we danced that day at all. My mother made telephone calls to parents to retrieve their sons or daughters.
Another aspect of the club was the book incident. One day, at home, I discovered a book resting on my father’s dresser. I had never seen the book before. It had a cream colored, hard binding, textured to suggest a woven or brocaded material. The title, in modest-size letters, was “Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living.” I borrowed the book, temporarily, taking it into my own room.
Foreplay, I learned, was really, really, important. And part of the problem was that it was more important for women, and lots of men didn’t know this. I hid the book in my dresser for the time being so that I could reread this section later. At some point I told Lucy about the book and one day I wrapped it in a paper bag and brought it to school. The book was exchanged between members of The Swing and Sway Club over the next month and eventually came back to me. I hid it under some insulation batting in the attic and never told either of my parents that I had found it.
How could they not have missed it? Maybe the book was purchased by one of them without telling the other. Maybe one of them thought the other one had it, or maybe they each surmised I had taken it and they were afraid to question me about something that embarrassed them. I didn’t have the benefit of an older brother or sister to lift the veil of innocence that covered most of my thinking about sex.
I graduated from 8th grade in P.S. 130 in June, 1939. We had our class picture taken outside on a hot day, and I remember the picture-taking ceremony as if it were yesterday. As a child I was always self-conscious about being a weakling and lacking a muscular build, and I stand out clearly in the picture. I’m the boy who took a deep breath, just before the picture was snapped, so that my chest would stand out. It’s so obvious I’m holding my breath because my shoulders are scrunched up around my ears.
My mother and father both came to the graduation ceremony at P.S. 130. Lucy Stamb sang a song for the occasion and her sister, Alice, played the piano accompaniment. I was elected to turn pages for Alice, so I was on stage at the same time. Not that I knew how to read the music. I relied on Alice to nod when it was time to turn the page. Maybe Alice had memorized the piece, anyway. The title of the song was “A Heart That is Free.” It was a beautiful way to end the last day of elementary school and I was pleased to be on stage when Lucy sang.
Shortly after graduation my family drove up to Elka Park for the summer. Spending my summers there was, by now, routine. The war clouds were gathering in Europe that August and I would spend hours picking up the faint signals on our short wave radio to listen to correspondent reports from London, and devouring the New York Times every day. On September 3rd, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and soon all the countries in Europe would be impacted.
My family commemorated the occasion that afternoon by climbing together to the top of Spruce Top Mountain. It would be the only time we climbed Spruce Top, or any other mountain, as a family. Along the way up, we encountered many others doing the same thing, as though we were all, somehow, mysteriously drawn to this feat, not from any fear of war or that we would be drawn into it but because of the uncertainty. Perhaps we needed to endure and share the strain and enervation of climbing a mountain as a penance for what was to come.
In September, 1939, at age 14, I entered Bayside High School.
© Gene Landriau, 2011
Hurricane of 1938:
East Orange, NJ to the Bayside Neighborhood:
Saile Halasie and the Ethiopia/Italy conflict in the 1930’s:
Seed Catalogs of the 1930’s:
New Music This Week: Lady Be Good