For reasons undoubtedly known to his immediate family, Roger Dooley was known to one and all as “Rody”. Rody had an
older brother, Michael, and a still older sister, Betty. Michael Dooley was not a member of our gang, being closer in
age to my oldest brother, Joe, to permit that kind of association. However, Michael Dooley shared a bedroom with Rody
and had an admirable collection of model airplanes; P-38’s, P-51’s, Spitfires, etc., that hung from the ceiling in
About a year older than me, Rody was (from my cautious perspective) an adventurous soul, quite willing to risk parental wrath, if necessary, rather than fail to do something he thought would be fun to do. We both attended Sts. Peter and Paul elementary school but for the first five grades were in separate classes, he in “B” while I was in “A’. From the sixth grade through graduation we were both in “B”. I’m not sure which H.S. Rody attended but do know that shortly after graduation he joined the Navy. Later I learned that he had become a Florida police officer.
Tommy lived directly across St Ann's Avenue from Public School (P.S.) 38. In the neighborhood
social hierarchy, I was always under the impression that the Allen’s circumstances were somewhat better than that of
the Woods’. This may have been because of the one time I was in Tommy’s apartment I noticed an interesting clock on
the mantle of the Allen’s faux fireplace. The clock, with only its face visible, was enclosed in a miniature
representation of a French 18th Century coach and four. Its ornate trim and subtle colors presented an air of elegance
that I suddenly realized was lacking in the apartments of my other contemporaries as well as my own.
As his name betrays, Whitey’s hair was fair to the point of being snow white.
Whitey lived in a small two story building abutting Tommy Allen’s building on its north side and another series of apartment buildings on what would have been its southern exposure. Whitey owned a small dog named, imaginatively, “Blackie”.
Taken from our fourth floor apartment rear window, this photograph (circa 1945) captures Peggy Ferguson apparently directing Joe-Joe to return home (I can be seen at the extreme right of the group) During WWII the ground beyond the Apple tree within P.S. 38’s fenced in perimeter was cultivated as a “Victory Garden”; green beans, carrots and the like were grown in support of the war effort.
Joe-Joe lived in the apartment right above our own. The third youngest of four siblings, “Joe-Joe”
was the juvenile moniker he answered to for most of the 1940’s. As adolescence grew closer, “Joey” came into greater usage,
eventually superseded by just plain “Joe”. Later on, in his teens, Joe was also known as “Flash” Ferguson for his slow,
deliberative manner of walking. Peggy was the oldest, next came Hugh (Junior) and approximately nine months after Hugh Senior’s
return from service in WW II, Rosemary came to live in their fifth floor apartment. Peggy married one of the young men who
worked in the Hero (Deli) shop which, along with DeSantis’ Cleaners, flanked the entrance to Rody Dooley’s apartment
Georgie was not a regular, day-to-day member of the group but figured in often enough to be mentioned. Georgie and his older brother, Danny, lived in the apartment building occupying the eastern corner of 156th Street and St. Ann’s
Avenue. The entrance to the building was on the Avenue, opposite DeSantis’ cleaners. Danny Carroll, if memory serves, joined
the Marines as soon as he was Seventeen. We heard that on his way up to the front lines in Korea, his platoon was strafed by our
own planes (friendly fire) and Danny was severely wounded.
This little boy’s participation in our activities was limited to games that could be played in proximity to DeSantis’ Cleaners. Sebastian was the son of one of DeSantis’ Black press men. About two years younger than me, we took a protective attitude toward him and if we were playing Johnny-on-the-Pony, would give him a boost so he could get on. We added “Lollipop” to his name because we thought it sounded funny combined with Fudge.
J. J. Murphy was not really part of the group being closer to my older brother Joe in age. However, J. J.
liked to trade comic books and would deign to associate with us younger kids if it meant he could get rid of a few Nancy and Sluggo
comics for a Captain Marvel he hadn’t read. I remember Mike and I on more than one occasion hauling a batch of our thoroughly
read comics up to the Murphy’s apartment, spreading them out on the floor and debating the merits (and value) of a “Classic”
comic compared to, say, a “Wonder Woman”. J. J.’s younger brother Billy was about a year and a half younger than me and was too
young to participate in most of our activities.
Most of the more or less memorable events of my life that occurred before my eleventh birthday can’t be identified to a specific
date or age. Before the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950, my only interest in the daily newspaper was the comics,
therefore dating most of these early years’ events is very problematic. Prior to that mid-century summer, almost all my childhood
memories flow together without any clear demarcation as to year. Of course, some of these events can be identified as happening
either before, or after, another event, e.g., my first hospital stay occurred when I was seven years old, the second a year later
when I was eight.
One of my earliest and most vivid memories is that of the death of a man killed by a truck after it rolled backwards into the
corner of a building where the luckless individual happened to be standing or passing by. I didn’t see the accident, only its
aftermath. I am pretty sure I was no more than five years of age at the time because it occurred before I was old enough to
“leave the block”. That meant I was not permitted to cross any street and was therefore restricted to the south side of 156th
Street, the west side of St. Ann’s Avenue, the north side of Carr Street and the east side of Hegney Place. On that day, Rody
Dooley and I were near the corner of Hegney Place when we heard a terrific noise coming from the direction of St. Ann’s Avenue.
It was so loud, I thought the ground shook but that was probably my imagination. Instantly, Rody and I raced to see what had
happened. The scene spread before us was truly horrific. The back of a truck was lodged in the entrance to DeSantis’ Cleaners,
a store located on the corner of St. Ann’s Avenue and 156th Street. The decorative pole or column in front of the entrance was
knocked down and on the sidewalk a man was lying in a large pool of very red blood that grew wider as we stared at it. There
was a white cane lying not far from the body. We learned later that the truck was traveling east up 156th Street opposite
Ebling’s Brewery when it suddenly lost power and started to roll down hill. Its brakes must have failed as well, because it
did not slow down as it went through the intersection. Because of the cane, I’ve always had the impression that the man killed
was blind and, literally, never saw the truck coming. Undoubtedly, a photographic record of the scene was made. Whether it
still exists in some newspaper or police precinct archive is something I wonder about. And, if it does, in the background
among the curious passersby, perhaps the image of two little wide eyed boys may also have been captured.
One Summer’s day, when I was about seven or eight years old, Rody Dooley, Whitey Olsen, two or three others and myself were
ambling along up St. Ann’s Avenue toward Carr Street when the cry, “Run!” set us off as if a starter’s pistol had just been
discharged. We were on the west side of the avenue and had just passed the main entrance to Public School 38 when the sudden
warning startled us into flight. Looking over my right shoulder I saw an adult running diagonally across the avenue in our
direction. In the deepest recess of my memory, I associate his apparent anger with the idea that one or all of us were
complicit in a stone being thrown at his truck. Now, this wasn’t your ordinary commercial vehicle. This was a glazier’s
truck, the kind with the slanted sides that permitted large panes of glass to lean against them. I’m sure I would have heard
the sound of breaking glass if one of us had just perpetrated such an act, so the crime probably occurred earlier, perhaps days
earlier. In any case, we were not about to argue our guilt or innocence with someone convinced we were the ones responsible.
As the pack of supposed vandals streamed across Carr Street, it was already starting to stretch out. The older boys took the lead while the younger ones fell farther behind. I was the youngest and smallest, and was dead last. Even so, I was convinced that I could outrun what I considered an old man (who may have been no more than forty and perhaps a lot younger). Rody was a few paces ahead of me, and Whitey a similar number in front of him. Joe-Joe Ferguson had the lead and, as I passed Dutchy Muller’s house on the corner of Carr Street, he was already abreast the entrance to Slux’s apartment building half way up the block. In less than a minute, Rody and I were turning the corner occupied by DeSantis’ Cleaners on to 156th Street just in time to see Joe-Joe sprint up the stairs of our stoop and disappear within the safety of his (and my) apartment building. It was impossible for me to follow his example because our pursuer had also turned the corner and would have seen me try. There was nothing left to do but to keep on and trust that he would soon give up. As we were passing the last apartment building on our side of the street, the remaining leaders, one of whom may have been Tommy Allen, turned left onto Hegney Place and vanished from view. Rody, Whitey and I pounded on, hemmed in on the right by the line of parked cars strung like beads along the curb and on the left by the windowless, gray box factory that anchored the block on its northwest corner. A gap had now opened between Whitey and Rody, but the same could not be said for the distance between the glazier and me. I was, by now, amazed at and starting to worry that he might not tire. Unnervingly, he seemed just as intent as when the chase began. One after the other, we turned the corner and raced down Hegney Place, back toward Carr Street. As we cleared the end of the box factory on our left, the empty lot that lay behind the row of buildings just passed offered an alternative escape route. I could, I thought, detach myself from the pursuit by darting to the left and cutting across the lot. None of the boys ahead had decided on that option, however. Like marathoners they continued in a straight line, re-crossing Carr Street without breaking stride. If I were to attempt a different route, I had only a second to decide before I reached the point where the beaten down path leading across the lot met the sidewalk. No, too risky, I decided, better to stay with the pack then separate and be the only quarry in sight.
Looking ahead I could see other kids playing in Carr Street. With one side of the street facing an empty lot and the other the side entrance to PS 38, there were never any cars parked on it. It was often blocked off at both ends with sign declaring it a “Play Street”. Unconcerned with the life-and-death drama sweeping past them, some of these children were playing tag while one boy was, rather unsteadily, riding a two-wheeled bicycle down the middle of the street. I made a mental note to avoid these hazards when I crossed it. Unfortunately, Rody, who was about two lengths ahead of me, decided at this critical moment to look over his shoulder to gauge how far behind was our pursuer. I saw Rody’s eyes widen slightly as he realized he wasn’t that far behind at all and, Before I could yell a warning, he plunged off the curb and right into the boy on the bicycle. In an instant Rody, boy and bicycle were on the ground. Rody’s eyes were closed; he was hor’s de combat. I had only a moment to decide whether to stay with my downed companion or abandon him to his fate.
Nimbly negotiating the wreckage, I made it to the opposite curb and raced on. Once across, I had no choice but to continue along Hegney Place. It was too late to turn east; the maddened glazier chasing me (in ignoring Rody it was clear that he was after me) could swiftly halve the distance between us by cutting across the street at a 45 degree angle. Math was never my best subject but I knew instinctively that making a 90 degree turn to the left would be disastrous.
As far as the eye could see, the high wire fence enclosing P.S. 38’s schoolyard stretched ahead on my left while across cobble-stoned Hegney Place, the equally inhospitable spiked fence bordering the rail yards continued uninterrupted all the way to Westchester Avenue. If my determined pursuer hesitated at all at the Carr Street pile-up, I was not aware of it. Two hundred yards distant, Rae Street represented the next decision point. Before the half way mark was reached, however, the gap separating Whitey and me....
A view of P.S. 38’s school yard and the rail yard extending to Westchester Avenue (Photo taken in the late 50’s)
....seemed to widen. I could not see anyone else in front of him, the others had, apparently, successfully disengaged and now only Whitey and I remained. I wondered whether Whitey would cross
Rae Street and keep on going or, instead, turn east and head back to St. Ann’s Avenue. I was about fifty yards behind when Whitey made the turn; it was going to be a dash for home! Either I was slowing down or Whitey had found some hidden reserves to draw on because when I turned the corner he had increased his lead and was just a few seconds from reaching the corner of
Rae and St. Ann’s Avenue. Soon it would be only the mad glazier and me. When I got to the corner, Whitey was initially nowhere to be seen. But then, I glimpsed him on the other side of the Avenue, partially hidden by the row of parked cars as he ran toward his house.
Whitey lived in a two story, private house wedged in between apartment buildings on either side. I was familiar with the vestibule and hallway that lay behind the street door. Occasionally, when we were bored, the gang would assemble in the hallway and at the signal, turn off the lights. In the blackness that enveloped us, we would fight to get to the top of the stairs to the landing above. It was permissible to use bare fists and since one didn’t know who was being hit or hit by, there were no personal hard feelings afterwards. Scraped knuckles or a bloody nose was an entirely acceptable price to pay for the exhilaration experienced in our anonymous donnybrook.
Before my pursuer turned the corner behind me, Whitey had gained entry to that vestibule and hallway unobserved by him. Now it was just the glazier and me. I was slowed momentarily as I worked my way between the bumpers of the cars parked on my side of the Avenue but once free of those impediments, quickly crossed over, dodging traffic as I did so. Undeterred, the glazier followed after and with his eyes fixed on me, watched as I deliberately opened the door to Whitey’s house and ran inside.
Directly ahead of me was the staircase leading to the floor above; to the right of the stairs was a short corridor almost blocked by a baby carriage. Without disturbing the carriage, I sidled past it and ducked behind the staircase just as the vestibule door burst open and the glazier, panting heavily, entered. He paused just long enough for his eyes to become adjusted to the dimly lit hallway and then lunged forward.
I heard his footsteps on the stairs over my head and knew that my last minute plan to shake him off my trail had worked. When I judged he was at the top of the stairs and could not see me, I darted from my hiding place and exited the hallway with the sound of his fist pounding on Whitey’s door ringing in my ears. In no time at all, I was back across the avenue and walking, not running, past the point where the chase had begun scarcely twenty minutes earlier. In that short space of time, I had abandoned one friend and given up another. Looking back on the affair, I can’t honestly say that I felt any remorse whatsoever. In fact, I was pretty satisfied on having eluded capture and for having tricked my way out of a tight spot.
I found out later that Rody had a few bruises but nothing broken. Whitey was able to successfully deny everything; after all, he wasn’t the little boy the glazier had chased into the building. In the words of the immortal bard, all was well that ended well.
When I was about ten years old, Hollywood released the movie, “Battleground”. Its depiction of U.S. soldiers fighting from
foxholes during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge had an almost immediate effect on how I and the rest of the neighborhood boys
began to play “war”. We now realized that foxholes had to be included in order to have our make-believe war games be as realistic
I’m not sure where we got the equipment, or even what the equipment was, to begin our initial excavation. It may have been just some sharp sticks or used soup cans, but whatever we used, once begun progress was steady. Of course, the only place available for our play battleground was the empty lot that lay behind the apartment buildings lining 156th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue. The spot chosen was in the middle of the lot just a few feet north of the worn path that traversed the lot from its northwest to southeast corners. I distinctly remember looking forward to returning to the dig the following morning when nightfall put an end to our first day’s efforts. With renewed vigor, the gang (Rody Dooley, Joe Ferguson, Whitey Olsen, Tommy Allen, my brother Mike and I) soon had hollowed out a hole approximately three feet deep and four feet in diameter. Unfortunately, it could not hold all those who wanted to occupy it. The foxhole had just too many foxes clamoring to hide in it. Very quickly, the length of the fox hole increased to the point that all six could fit and the idea of having a foxhole to play war games had given way to the much more attractive idea of creating an underground clubhouse. A search of the neighborhood soon yielded enough scrap lumber and cardboard to fashion a roof strong enough to hold the weight of the earth sprinkled on top to camouflage its existence (if not the weight of a man walking a dog).
The foxhole turned clubhouse was a hit. Having now assumed the shape of an oval approximately four feet wide by seven feet in length, it featured steps dug in at one end to facilitate entry as well as raised ”benches” on the sides for member seating. However, once the “digging bug” had bitten, there was no turning back and further improvements were soon underway. It was determined that a fireplace was needed and before the day was done, the clubhouse had an extension sculpted out of the far end opposite the entry way. Pieces of paper, cardboard and twigs were put alight and the white smoke curling up and out of the hole in the roof testified to our joint accomplishment.
The location of the foxhole/clubhouse would have been approximately in the middle of the lot about halfway between my right elbow and the end of the fence on the lot’s far side. Our apartment’s rear window on the fourth floor can be seen directly over Joe’s left shoulder and immediately under the line of wash (Photo taken about 1946).
I don’t know who the practical joker was, but someone thought it would be great fun to cover the chimney opening and fill the
clubhouse with smoke. Those in our subterranean chamber at the time quickly exited the premises. Even with both the chimney
and entry holes opened, the smoke was slow to dissipate, preventing our return. It was then that Rody appeared with a gas mask
with which to brave the smoke and stamp out the fireplace’s smoldering embers. While the gas mask looked very authentic,
featuring goggles and canister, it was, after all, a toy gas mask.
Rody lowered himself into the clubhouse and disappeared into the smoke. Concern mounted rapidly, however, when there was no answer to our urgent inquiries, “Are you OK?” I don’t remember who it was who decided Rody’s continued silence had cast sufficient doubt on the effectiveness of the gas mask to require immediate action, but very quickly that someone jumped down into the clubhouse and pulled a semi-conscious Rody up and out into the South Bronx’s fresh air.
I’m not sure how long it took for Rody to recover from his misadventure, but what had happened to him was never shared with the adult world. To have done so would have inhibited any further freedom of action, so barring broken bones or death, the rule was not to mention anything that would cause adult interference in our pursuit of adventure.
Once clear of smoke, our clubhouse was again reoccupied. Our next objective was to dig an escape tunnel and using the now abandoned fireplace as a starting point, digging began anew. Called to supper, both Mike and I left the foxhole/clubhouse anticipating a renewal of efforts in the morning. But it was not to be. During the night a man walking a dog fell through our makeshift roof and within a very short time the adult world had dismantled the remains of the roof and threw earth back into the hole reducing the clubhouse to a shallow depression. A rumor circulated, never verified, that Tommy Allen had remained that evening working on the tunnel when he uncovered what appeared to be a human skull. We all knew that the empty lot was once a cemetery, so to our credulous minds, Tommy’s story had a chance of being true. Of course no one ever saw the skull and the destruction of the clubhouse prevented any further explorations to determine the veracity of the tale.
Our clubhouse may have been destroyed, but undeterred, the war games continued and the empty lot was often the battleground. The shallow depression drew the neighborhood combatants like a magnet and was the objective to be taken or the fortress to be held, depending on which side one was on. During one of these scrimmages, Rody charged down one side of the depression but before he could surmount the opposite bank, an abandoned bed spring held upright by the defenders on the other side, was tipped over and falling on Rody in mid-leap, flattened him to the ground. I can still remember the stunned look on Rody’s face as he lay pinned under that bed spring.
As the years passed, the shallow depression remained as a reminder to those of us still living in the neighborhood of the time we youngsters had joined together in an exciting enterprise. Tommy Allen and Whitey Olsen would soon move away, and for the rest of us playing war games gave way to other pursuits. The empty lot and the buildings that encompassed it are long gone, but it and the memory of the part it played in our youth lives on in memory and now on this page as well.
Tommy Allen lived in an apartment building quite different from the one I lived in. Tommy’s building had a hidden courtyard
accessed from St. Ann’s Avenue via a passage way about eight feet wide and perhaps as much as twelve feet in depth. I believe
there were store fronts facing St. Ann’s Avenue which explains why, upon gaining the courtyard, the visitor had to ascend a
series of four or five steps before encountering the exterior doors that led to the first floor apartments. In fact, the
visitor had a choice to make between two sets of stairs because there were actually two apartment buildings whose entrance
doors at opposite ends of the courtyard faced each other. These two apartment buildings apparently shared a common basement
and in its darkened interior the gang invented a thrilling game of cat and mouse.
Serendipitously, we all seemed to have come into possession of six-shot cap pistols at about the same time. Unlike the cap pistols of the past that relied on the hammer striking caps fed from a roll, there were no misfires with the round, six-cap load used for the newer pistols. Besides the rewarding loud bang produced by the hammer striking the cap full on its face, the necessity of reloading after firing all six shots heightened the reality of our mock gun fights. The action would start once two or three of our adversaries had hidden themselves in the almost pitch black basement to await our attempt to find and shoot them. They would, of course, wait until the last possible moment before announcing their presence by squeezing off a series of shots at almost point blank range. The loud report and flash had almost the same effect on ones heart rhythm as if hit with a real bullet. Naturally, stealth was the watchword and it wasn’t guaranteed that it was always the intruders who would be surprised first.
One particularly satisfying gun fight (from my point of view) followed my decision to vary the usual search pattern by immediately upon entering the basement climb up and onto the asbestos insulated pipes that ran the length of the basement. Crawling slowly and quietly along the pipes, I stopped at a spot overlooking some storage boxes behind which, I strongly suspected, crouched a concealed ambusher. Biding my time, I waited until the suspense forced my quarry to move from his hiding place around and almost directly under me to what he thought was a better, more secure spot.
The three rapid explosions produced by my cap pistol reverberated most gratifyingly in the confined space that separated us. My triumphant exclamation, “Got Ya”, was hardly necessary; my eliminated opponent readily confessed to being completely surprised and “out of the game”. Ah, the thrill of victory, the smell of gunpowder in the darkness; how rewarding! What fun!
The cap pistol season seemed to come to an end suddenly. I know the janitor got wind of the use we were making of his basement and saw to it that the basement door was locked and warning given that trespassing would not be tolerated. Out of respect for Tommy Allen, we did not try to circumvent the prohibition. Without a venue, we apparently put our cap pistols away until a new one could be found. I guess we never found one.
During the 1940’s, the term “Oil Cloth” was commonly used to describe the floor covering whose better quality cousin was
known as “linoleum”. Oil cloth was most often used in the kitchen, but being cheap was rather thin and wore out quickly.
When discarded, we boys would cut up the oil cloth into little one inch squares. When inserted between the strands of a
rubber band held by a nail (usually driven into the under side of a piece of wood fashioned in the shape of a pistol), the
square could be propelled quite a distance depending on how far back the rubber band was stretched before being released.
Every boy in the neighborhood was an amateur armorer in this regard and we tried to outdo each other in fashioning the most
powerful oil cloth gun. It needs to be understood that these guns were not used solely for target practice. If we couldn’t
have BB guns to fire pellets at each other, then the bite of an oil cloth square would have to suffice to prove a hit had
been scored in our never ending quest for realistic gun fights. Of course, we weren’t completely crazy, the rule was: no
aiming at the head.
The older neighborhood kids created a club requiring its members to engage in purposefully dangerous activities. It was
called the Adventure Club. Rody and I were deemed too young to participate but, whenever possible, followed along looking
for an opportunity to join in. The activity usually required a good deal of climbing and a certain amount of upper body
strength. I have a vague recollection on one such occasion of climbing up the rear wall of Ebling’s brewery (as accessed
from 156th Street) using the metal screening covering the opaque windows found there to get finger and toe holds. Once up
on the roof, we explored a maze of wooden boxes piled one on top of the other. Moving around and over the boxes, we had to
be careful not to dislodge any as they were balanced rather precariously. In one area, the boxes formed a hollowed out room
of sorts which we promptly claimed as our club house. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we did not stay long as our
presence was soon discovered and we had to leave quite precipitously. On a return trip, we found our club house had either
been destroyed or had fallen in on itself.
I was hospitalized twice before my tenth birthday. My first hospital experience occurred when I was seven years old. While
the empty lot behind our apartment building was our de facto play ground, we usually avoided the section that bordered the
rear of Slux’s apartment building. Some of the residents of that building appeared to be in the habit of air-mailing out
their back windows items that should have been included in the trash pick up. Consequently, tin cans, broken bottles and
other plain garbage littered this area. During the summer months, the grass and weeds grew higher there, somewhat concealing
This particular afternoon, Whitey Olsen and his little dog, “Blackie” and I were playing on Carr Street when Blackie suddenly ran into the lot and, probably drawn by the smell, ventured into this area. I decided to fetch the little dog and ran after him. Tripping on something in the weeds, I pitched forward coming down hard on both knees. I immediately felt a sharp pain as something sharp penetrated my left knee. I was able to stand but knew I had a serious injury because I could feel the blood spurting out of the wound with each flex of the knee as I limped home. It was a long walk, requiring my working my way out of the lot back up to Carr Street, turning east to St. Ann’s Avenue, up the Avenue passing the front of Slux’s, around the corner of 156th Street, and finally up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. All the while, of course, I was crying piteously and undoubtedly calling out for “Ma”. Rolling up the torn pants leg to reveal a trident shaped wound to the knee, my horrified mother asked what had happened. I gave her a quick summary, ending with the plea, “Don’t Blame Blackie”. I made the request because I secretly did blame Blackie and wanted to be overruled. Needless to say, Blackie was not considered culpable by anyone and to the extent someone should have been blamed it was, of course, the person whose discarded broken bottle had caused the injury. To my seven year old mind, if it hadn’t been for the dog, I would not have ventured into that section, so it was his fault.
After sixty odd years I don’t remember how I got from the apartment to Doctor Goldstein’s office (Dr. Goldstein’s office was located on the first floor of the building opposite Slux’s apartment building) but once there, he quickly determined that I needed to be hospitalized and suggested either St. Francis or Lincoln Hospital. My stay at St. Francis lasted two weeks during which time my knee was operated on twice. In those days, Ether was the anesthesia used to knock out the patient and was administered via a mask placed over the mouth and nose. The smell of the Ether was terrible and while I struggled mightily, I could not free myself from the leather restraints that pinned my arms to the table. On my second trip to the operating room and hidden by the sheet covering me, I stealthily removed my right arm from the restraint. When the dreaded mask was placed over my mouth and nose, I surprised the medical team by throwing a punch with the free arm. I don’t think I connected but I was pleased with the attempt.
The second operation apparently eliminated the infection that had the doctors talking of possible amputation and so for the next week or so I remained in the children’s ward, healing. The ward was almost empty except for the bed occupied by another boy whose right leg had been mangled in a trolley car mishap. His name was Freddie. Unfortunately, his leg couldn’t be saved and it was amputated just below the knee. When dressing the stump, the doctors and nurses made no attempt to screen the process from my view and hearing. As only a couple of beds separated us, I can still remember the disturbing sight and sound of that really gruesome event. I saw Freddie a couple of times after our release; both times it was in Alexander’s Department store located on Third Avenue. Freddie was on crutches and waved a silent acknowledgement to my greeting.
My second hospital experience occurred when I was about eight or nine years old. St. Mary’s Park was about the farthest south our
gang would venture and for a little variety we would troop on down there to play. Not far inside the north entrance to the park
was a circular structure probably no more than three or four feet in height and approximately eight feet in diameter. To this day
I have no idea what utilitarian purpose it served but to a group of boys it was something to climb up on and be pushed off from.
This we proceeded to do until there came a time when it was free of any contenders looking for sole possession. Seizing the
opportunity, I climbed up and loudly proclaimed that I was “King of the Mountain”.
The first I realized that there was someone behind me was when I felt hands on my back propelling me off with a firm push. Being totally unprepared, I fell forward head first and instinctively held out my hands to break the fall. When I got to my feet, I saw what looked like a twig or piece of wood sticking in my left wrist. I remember thinking that it must be touching a nerve because my left hand fell limp and I was unable to move my fingers. Mike and I immediately set out for home. Upon crossing 149th Street we were observed by a caring adult who steered us into a nearby Drug store. Unfortunately, the Pharmacist wanted nothing to do with us, being more concerned with his white tile floor having blood dripped on it than he was with the scared little boy with the broken wing.
He told us to leave, suggesting we go to the emergency room at Lincoln Hospital (about a half mile away). This callous treatment angered our Good Samaritan who demanded the pharmacist bandage the arm and call for an ambulance (which he did). Mike stayed with me until the ambulance came and took me away. Poor Mike had to go home and explain that while he and his little brother were playing in St. Mary’s Park (where we were not supposed to go) he had allowed said little brother to get hurt badly enough to be hospitalized-again.
As it turned out, my diagnosis was incorrect. The muddy stick in my arm was actually my protruding wrist bone; I had suffered a compound fracture. Once cleaned up and reset, the wrist was encased in a cast up to the elbow and within a few days I was back home. Two weeks later the cast was off and I had another scar to add to the collection started the year before.
I have to confess that it was years after playing the game that I realized the correct name for the activity known as
“Hide-and-Seek” was not what I had always called it, “Hinegoseek”. Similarly, the game called “Ring-a-Leavio” or in our
parlance, “Ring-a Leario”, may have had another title but if so, I don’t know what it might have been. In any case,
Ring-a-Leavio” required the person tagged as “it” to leave his/her base of operations (usually a Lamp Pole or Fire Alarm box)
and attempt to find or spot those hiding in the area. If spotted, the searcher would call out the person’s name, e.g.,
“Ta-Ta Billy behind the car” or “Ta-Ta Tommy behind the stoop”, requiring the person so caught to return to the base and
wait there until all the rest had been found and likewise sequestered. The searcher had to be on guard, however, not to
let anyone not yet caught beat him/her back to the base and call out ‘Free All!”. Were this to happen, the prisoners would
rush out to find new hiding places while the searcher hid his/her eyes, counted to 100 and started all over again.
Card games were another pass-time that ranged from the innocent “Pigs” (also known as “Concentration”) to the more malevolent “Knucks”. Knucks, short for knuckles, was a game of Rummy with the payoff requiring the loser to hold out his clenched fist while the winners took turns using the deck of cards to hit his exposed knuckles, one hit for each card the loser was stuck with. If, however, one was too eager in attempting to draw blood by skinning the knuckles and instead missed entirely, then the tables were turned and the loser was entitled to mete out double the punishment to that unfortunate person. Of course, flinching was not permitted.
Marbles, a game we played infrequently and which I suspect has probably disappeared completely, required the participants to attempt to knock their opponents marbles (called “Immies”) out of a circle drawn in the dirt. Due to the irregularities of the ground, one was never quite sure the targeted immie would, if hit, actually be propelled out of the circle. The marble used to hit the immies was called a “Klabola” and was larger than the Immies. The shooter held the Klabola in the crook of the forefinger and using the adjoining thumb, flicked it at the desired immie. (When Rosemary Ferguson, less than a week old, was brought home from the hospital, a group of us were standing by the stoop when the car bearing mother and child arrived. Surprised by how tiny she seemed, I drew an unintended laugh when I exclaimed that her head looked no bigger than a Klabola).
Collecting cards (the regulation size baseball player cards s as well as oversized sports/celebrity kind) also occupied our time. We may have traded these cards but the favored method to increase one’s collection was to flip one’s own card against the card of someone else. Whoever was able to match cards by having his card land on the ground with the same side up as his competitor’s, got to keep both cards. This required the challenger to estimate the number of times his card had to turn over in mid air as it fell, and then use just the right amount of force to flip it off his finger tips to accomplish the task. Sometimes we would press the card against the wall and just let it fall counting on sheer luck for it to land and make a match. This approach was used when it was believed that the opposing party was too accomplished a flipper.
Hop-scotch, or as it was known in our precincts, “Potsy”, was played from age 4 to 12. There was something about the activity that was irresistible; the ability to stand on one foot while leaning over to pick up a marker tossed into one of the numbered boxes, the distances getting progressively greater each time the marker was successfully deposited, the jump-twist turn around managed without going out of bounds, all serving to prove to one and all the player’s superior balance and dexterity. I always considered myself an excellent Potsy player.
While all the foregoing games were played from time to time, most of our childhood games revolved around the bouncing, throwing, catching, and hitting of a pink ball known as the “Spaldeen”. They usually sold for a dime, but since Mike and I were always broke, we relied on others in the group to purchase Spalding and Company’s fine product. Sometimes, by great good fortune, we would come across a spaldeen lying in the weeds or, using our urban mountain climbing skills, retrieve one from the decorative cornices that lined P.S. 38’s exterior walls. It was amazing how often a spaldeen would lodge itself in these cornices; their concave shape apparently presented a perfect fit for a spaldeen traveling at just the right angle and velocity.
I’ve seen TV documentaries in which old timers describe how they played stickball on the streets of New York City. Unlike those accounts, we rarely, if ever, played stickball on 156th Street, traffic made that too dangerous. Stickball was played in the schoolyard; the spaldeen was served overhand but on a bounce to the hitter using a discarded broomstick for a bat. While there were occasional home-runs, the ball sailing over the wire fence in right field or over the center fielder’s head for an “in the park” homer, most of the plays were routine ground balls or pop-ups. If there weren’t enough players to make up two teams, a game of “One-A-Cat” sufficed with each participant rotating from position to position as the game proceeded. If the pitcher got the batter out, the unsuccessful hitter went to right field and the pitcher was “up” to face the former short stop. Eventually, all the players would get a chance at bat and to play each position.
“Fast Pitching” was a game sometime played two against two, but more often than not, one on one. A rectangle was drawn on the school yard wall simulating the strike zone. The pitcher would throw the spaldeen at the rectangle and, depending on how he held the ball before letting go, deliver curve balls, fast balls, change-ups, etc., in an attempt to strike the batter out. If the ball wasn’t hit, it would bounce off the wall back to the pitcher. Rody Dooley and I would often find ourselves facing off in a game of fast pitching when the rest of the gang seemed to be unavailable for a regular game. I was never able to “break” my wrists sufficiently, if at all, to snap the bat around in order to really hit the ball with enough force to send it over the fence. Rody did not have that problem.
If a broomstick wasn’t available, there was always “curb ball”. Whoever was “up” would stand in the street right next to the curb and attempt to hit the curb’s edge with the spaldeen causing it to sail over the head of the fielder standing in the street. Of course, if the fielder caught the ball, that would be one out.
There were some activities that we engaged in that weren’t games as such, and to the adult world, even back then, would
probably have been considered somewhat disturbing. However, in the eyes of eight or nine year old boys the placing of lighted
firecrackers in ant holes or the wholesale slaughtering of grasshoppers were deemed mere diversions, not something that
continually occupied our time or something that we particularly reveled in doing. Ants, of course, were relatively inoffensive;
our only purpose in blowing them up was to observe how quickly they returned after the smoke cleared away. On the other hand,
we really disliked grasshoppers. Their sudden jumping (totally unexpected) was unnerving and besides, they were ugly.
Inevitably there came the day when our random swiping at them gave way to a more systematic effort at grasshopper control.
On that particular day, and within a very short period of time, my brother Mike and I and perhaps no more than two others,
scoured the empty lot‘s grassy area capturing as many of the little green critters as possible. Scraping out little holes
in the dirt, we quickly deposited them and just as quickly covered them over. Pretty soon we had a little Boot Hill
(sans gravestones) to reward our efforts. In looking it over, however, we decided the lack of some kind of marker
identifying this newly raised mound of earth just wouldn’t do. The discovery of a few nails answered our purpose. We
quickly unearthed a couple of the unfortunates and in the worst tradition of Vlad the Impaler, mounted their skewered
remains in the center of the patch of dirt known to us forever after as “Grasshopper Hill”. Mike and I conducted a follow
up inspection the next day and found all the buried grasshoppers had escaped, mitigating to some degree our pre-pubescent
excursion to the edge of darkness (the horror).
For the Woods boys, Public School 38 and its enclosed school yard was both familiar and foreign. Familiar because its
proximity made it a natural place to congregate either to play ball in the schoolyard or to climb over the spiked fence
to gain access and play in the shrubbery lined yards at both ends of the property. Foreign because this was a “Public School”
and we went to a parochial school, Sts. Peter and Paul. On a few occasions we, along with P. S. 38 students and other
neighborhood children, were actually permitted inside to sit in the school’s auditorium to see a “free” movie. Before
the lights were turned down and the 16mm black and white film (usually an early 30’s western) began, there was time to
take in the size of the auditorium and the murals of America’s colonial and industrial periods that graced the walls.
In those pre-Television days we were movie crazy; almost any flickering image on a screen commanded our attention. But
even we were able to recognize that most of the ones we sat through on those summer Saturdays were truly awful.
Once, during one of the projector breakdowns, a few of the attendees and I took the opportunity to go exploring. Somewhere along the way, however, exploring gave way to a game of escape and evasion, with me as the evader. Succeeding for a time in giving them the slip, I found a stairwell that led down and was gratified to find that it led to the “dungeon”, the name we had given to the part of the schoolyard that extended under the walkway leading to the school’s Carr Street entrance. Enclosed on three sides, this approximately 12 X 12 ft. dank space had two double doors on its north side leading into the school. To get to those exterior doors from the inside one had to first push open another set of doors that led to a landing about five feet wide before starting down a set of three or four stairs to the exit doors. I remember these details because of an escape stratagem I had quickly devised upon spying a small bucket of sand left in the corner of the landing. I had no sooner sprinkled the contents over the landing and stationed myself halfway through the exit doors when my erstwhile companions, in full cry, came bursting through the doors at the top of the stairs. It was quite satisfying to see them land on their backsides as their feet went out from under them and their wildly swinging arms failed to maintain their balance.
On another Summer Saturday, under P.S. 38’s auspices, a contest for most original costume was held and the neighborhood children were invited to participate. I don’t remember what the prize was but it must have been enough to entice me enter, a decision I soon regretted. There had to have been at least a hundred costumed children lined up in the schoolyard to slowly walk in front of the table set up for the three judge panel. My sure-fire winner costume, which looked so good at home, didn’t appear all that impressive when compared to other entrants and the heat of the day quickly sapped all my interest in the outcome. Unfortunately, I was trapped in the slowly moving line as it passed once, twice, and then once again in front of the judges. I was also trapped in what I recognized too late was a decidedly unseasonable costume. I had outfitted myself as an Indian Chief wrapped in a red wool blanket and capped with a 5 & 10 cent store bought Indian war bonnet. Sixty-five years later, I can still remember the perspiration running down my back as the line wound round and round. Needless to say little chief red-in-the-face didn’t win and he didn’t care.
There were four movie theaters within walking distance of our digs on 156th Street. The closest was the Lowes’ Victory
located on Third Avenue, a few shops down from Cushman’s bakery. Seven blocks farther south, the dueling marquees of the
RKO Royal and the Lowes’ National faced each other across 149th Street. The Bronx was a run-down theater two or three blocks
farther south that featured movies that had played at the others months earlier. A quarter got you into the National and Royal;
the Victory cost a dime. Ordinarily, a ticket entitled the purchaser the opportunity to see two full length feature films,
a series of “coming attractions”, an installment of a serial (called “Chapters”), a few cartoons, and a “News of the Day”
It was highly unusual to see just one film and then be ushered out, which is probably why I remember the one time that it occurred. I don’t remember what organization was responsible for arranging the excursion, but sometime in the summer of 1944 I was part of a group of children taken to see a special screening of the movie, “Buffalo Bill”. Assembling in the lobby of the RKO Royal, we were each given a ticket stub to hand to the attendants manning the entrance. It’s likely that there were other groups with similar sponsorships because I remember that there seemed to be a lot of jostling in the lobby and great efforts made to keep our group together. The ticket takers seemed very concerned that someone might take advantage of the confusion and slip in without a stub. However, once past this uniformed barrier we were seated toward the center rear and waited excitedly for the movie to begin. When it did I was thrilled to discover that the movie was in brilliant Technicolor. Starring Joel McCrea as Buffalo Bill Cody, it had a lot of action and yet I remember that the ending left me feeling sad.
Looking the movie up on the Internet, I found a synopsis that perhaps explains my youthful disappointment. The last third of the film traced Buffalo Bill’s decline in public esteem, “…Disgraced, Bill is reduced to self-parody as a sideshow attraction; sitting atop a wooden horse, before the creation of his Wild West Show restored his wealth and fame.” And as already noted, there was no second feature or series of cartoons shown. Once the film ended, the house lights went up and we were quickly moved out to the street and sent home.
Being part of a group that got to see a big movie like that and for free was such a novel event that even at the tender age of four years it made a lasting impression.
Rear: Michael Dooley, Joe Woods, Joe Ferguson Front: Mike and Jim Woods, Rody Dooley Ca. 1944
The movie, “The Picture of Dorian Grey” was released in 1945. While a very good film, it certainly couldn’t have been
considered suitable fare for children. Nevertheless, there I was (I think in the Royal) sitting next to my brother Joe as
this dark tale unfolded. A black and white film, its sudden switch to color at the moment Dorian’s portrait is uncovered to
reveal its hideous transformation was a jolt that brought gasps from the audience. I remember seeing one frightened boy running
up the aisle and out of the theater. The portrait was ugly, but it didn’t frighten me enough to leave; I took it as a bonus
that a part of the movie was in Technicolor. Joe, on the other hand, did have nightmares for a time afterward.
A film that did give me nightmares was “Spellbound”. It also came out in 1945. I have seen this film many times since; starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, it is classic Hitchcock. What got to me in this particular movie was the scene where Peck gets upset by the track his fork makes on a table linen. The lines traced remind him of a recurring dream that he can’t make sense of. It all gets explained by psycho-analysis and Peck and Bergman live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the five year old taking it all in had recurring nightmares as a result for years afterwards; a smooth expanse suddenly disturbed by lines provoked a sense of dread and fear that would wake me up terrified.
Mortified best described how I felt after seeing a short untitled film about the Emerald Isle. My father and mother no doubt thought it would be a fine thing for their offspring to gain an appreciation of the land of their birth and apparently a color travelogue presented that opportunity. I don’t remember the venue, I’m sure it wasn’t a regular movie theater, perhaps the back room of some tavern or the like. Again, I was probably no more than five or six years of age at the time but I knew an amateur production when I saw one, Narrated by the fellow running the projector, silent jerky pans of rolling Irish countryside interrupted by long studies of some farmer riding a cart down a narrow byway betrayed its non-Hollywood origin. A group of three or four children sitting on a stone wall caught the cameraman’s attention and while the adults watching were probably beguiled by the gossoons’ rosy cheeks and happy faces, I couldn’t help noticing how poor they looked. A scene of a toddler doing an imitation of a stone fountain cherub brought laughter from the adults sitting behind us but I was acutely embarrassed by it and glad when the film finally ended. From that time on I had no desire whatever to go to Ireland. I was, of course, proud to be Irish-American (then again just about everyone I knew was Irish) but as far as I was concerned, particularly in those patriotic war years, the emphasis was on the American part of the hyphenation.
I was probably about 10 years old when, home from school one afternoon, I decided to practice a little archery
in the empty lot that lay behind my apartment building. Sometime prior, I had acquired a real bow from the Sporting
Goods store located on Third Avenue. When strung, the bow had a 30 pound pull which I thought was pretty substantial
for a boy my age. I don’t think I had more than one or two arrows and, of course, there was no bull’s eye target on
a bale of straw to shoot at so my practice consisted of distance shots. I had to be careful not to hit the stockade
fence that screened the rear of the 156th Street apartment buildings from the lot, or the foundation wall of Slux’s
apartment building, for fear the impact would shatter the arrow’s wooden shaft. It wasn’t long before the trudging
back and forth to retrieve the arrows grew tiresome and my focus shifted skyward.
I had paid little attention to the groups of girls, in twos and threes, crossing the lot from the direction of PS 38’s side entrance toward Hegney Place at the northwest corner of the lot; their school day apparently ending an hour after mine. However, I remember as if it were only yesterday how my heart felt as if it was suddenly clamped in a vise as I watched the arrow I had just launched into the air arc overhead and begin its downward trajectory toward one of those small groups. Knowing that any cry of alarm would be too late to have any good effect, I watched helplessly as the arrow plunged to earth. It struck just behind the right heel of the girl closest to me. Neither she nor her companions heard it hit because they continued deep in conversation as they followed the well-worn path across the lot. Feeling an immense sense of relief, I quickly recovered the arrow without any notice being taken by the following group of girls and, still shaken, went back home.
I kept the bow for a long time afterward but don’t remember ever using it again.
In early spring 1947, a transient from Latin America stopping in New York City on his way home to New England, died of
Small Pox. Though his contacts in the city were few, the fear of an epidemic so alarmed the City Fathers that they
decided to undertake a campaign to vaccinate all New Yorkers: every man, woman and child. The Newspapers were soon
filled with stories and photos of thousands of people lined up outside Hospitals throughout the five boroughs waiting
patiently to be vaccinated. In fact, however, the vaccinations were not just dispensed at hospitals, and not every
New Yorker was content to wait patiently in line.
There is a small building located at the northwest corner of St. Mary’s Park. We always referred to it as a First Aid station but for the emergency it was operating as a local vaccination center. On this day, the line of mostly housewives and small children stretched from the building’s southern entrance to the sidewalk and halfway down the length of the park. Rody Dooley and I were in that line and we were definitely not patiently waiting. Since none of my or Rody’s siblings were with us that day, I suspect our mothers presence there was just to see that we were vaccinated. As they talked and shuffled slowly forward, my pal and I were able to detach ourselves from their immediate control and proceeded to conduct a scouting mission. The building’s southern entrance was tightly controlled, only two people at a time getting in and then only after a consultation by the door monitors with someone inside. Circling around to the rear (the north side) we beheld a very different situation.
Instead of a similar flow of couples exiting the building, there were clumps of four and six of the recently vaccinated being coughed out. Mothers and fathers were lingering at the door and just inside, waiting until their entire family unit had been taken care of before leaving. Taking advantage of the confusion, Rody and I slipped in without any notice being taken. The doctors and nurses giving the vaccinations were set up at a couple of tables busily swabbing, jabbing and bandaging the bared upper arms presented by their stoic subjects. Seeing an opening, Rody and I inserted ourselves into the assembly line process and within a few minutes joined the millions of other New Yorkers saved from the scourge of Small Pox. I believe I am one of the few whose upper arm has not been permanently embossed with the nickel sized reminder of April 1947 that was observable on most beach goers in the decades following.
The forties were lean times for toys but with modeling clay and a little imagination any number of what might be
called 1940 style action figures could be created and played with. Depending on the size desired, one slab of clay
might be divided and shaped to form a squadron of U.S. Cavalry troopers, or even a procession of Hannibal’s elephants
(with the ends of toothpicks for tusks). On this particular day I decided to make a deep-sea diver. When finished,
it stood about six inches tall. I had wrapped his head in a thin layer of clay to give him a bell shaped helmet and
his legs were similarly encased in diving boots. Using toothpicks to keep his arms and legs attached to his torso and
a length of string to simulate his lifeline, he didn’t make an altogether bad representation.
We lived on the fourth floor (apartment 4E to be precise) and if the height of each apartment floor was 10 feet, then at basement level the patch of dirt that lay beneath our rear window was approximately 40 feet below our window ledge. The metal guard installed on all non fire-escape windows (to prevent children from sitting on the ledge and falling out the window) prevented me from peering straight down as I lowered my creation into the imaginary depths. As I fed his lifeline out over the lip of the window ledge, he slowly descended past the third floor apartment occupied by the Garrett family. The Garrett’s had two sons, Harold and Larry. Both were older than me, Larry by about two years and Harold perhaps four or five. They also had a dog, King, but that’s another story.
I was about to start hauling my intrepid diver up (he was at the end of his tether) when the line suddenly went slack. I immediately raced to the front of our apartment, out the door, down the four flights of stairs and out onto the sidewalk. The only way to get to the rear of our apartment building was through the basement. Opening the iron fence gate, I continued down the stairs that led to the basement door under the stoop, pausing briefly before going in. I rarely ventured past that door. The interior was usually dark and the passage way to the back door was narrow. On the left was the long wall behind which lay the Super’s quarters; on the right were coal bins and the furnace, then the dusty, cobwebbed storage area set aside for the tenants’ use (in the fifties a coin operated washing machine was installed in this section) had to be passed before reaching a small open area just inside the rear entrance and opposite the Super’s apartment door. Outside that entrance and to the left down a few stairs was the patch of dirt where I was sure I would find my diver.
At first glance, the clay figure was not to be seen but on closer inspection I detected a clay boot projecting from the earth. A thin layer of dirt covered the rest of the body, effectively hiding the figure from view. Brushing the dirt away, I briefly examined him before carrying him back upstairs for a more thorough examination. The autopsy revealed that the toothpicks in his arms and legs had snapped on impact, in other words the fall had broken every bone in his body.
It’s possible, probably even probable, that the weight of the clay diver separated it from the attached string and that was the reason for its fall. However, I always suspected, and suspect even now, that as the diver dangled just outside the Garrett’s third floor window, a hand holding a pair of scissors reached out and…