It was 1933 in the middle of the depression. Sam, my father had found out in October, 1929 that his entire fortune was wiped out. He would need to liquidate his successful curtain rod factory with 600 employees to pay for the margin call. Although Sam was a moderately religious Jew he did not fit the stereotype of that period and although he was born in the Ft. Greene section of Brooklyn (on farmland with a pedestrian toll bridge going to their property) he spent some time up in Norman, Oklahoma. My father was an excellent horseman and could rope a steer. Otherwise he was the gentlest person that I had ever known. He was also an expert on nature, animals and he knew the Latin name of almost any tree or plant. I am told that one day when I was very young he took me on a trip to Norman l where he had me on his lap on the horse. We were supposed to go to a small town outside of Norman when suddenly the horse stopped cold and refused to move. When I was old enough to understand and heard my father relate the story to friends I learned that some animals, especially those that are domesticated have a special sense of danger. It seems that when we got back to Norman dad’s friends couldn’t believe that we had survived the tornado that leveled the town that were supposed to go to. Although he studied medicine he was offended by the crude practices of the medical profession at the time, especially what he conceived of the crude treatment of children in the hospitals. Still, he had surgeon hands and could slice meat or turkey paper thin.During World War 2 he did volunteer work for the Red Cross and he did research for Dupont. Dad was a superb fisherman and outdoorsman. On weekends he would take me to Kensico Reservoir in New York where we would fish for Bass. I even learned how to find and handle Copperhead snakes, once bringing one home to my mother in the trunk of the car. I was saved from a beating but Dad got yelled at. Jeanne was my mother and she had a sister and two brothers. One of her brothers came back from World War 2 surviving the Battle of the Bulge with no interest in going into the family business. His brother Sam led an unbelievable life. At age 12 Sammy was hit in the eye with a snowball which had traces of a diseased horse in it. This caused him to get horribly sick. He set a record up to the time that it happened as to the number of diseases residing in one person’s body. Although Sam survived the ordeal his eyes and his eyesight were destroyed completely. With the support of his family he graduated college, played the saxophone, married and had three fine children. Sammy refused the use of a Seeing Eye dog and he managed to get around with a cane. Eventually he opened up a newsstand on 48th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. He ran this stand successfully for many years travelling back and forth by subway to his home in the Bronx. He was a great fan of the Yankees and he would sit in front of the TV set (why not the radio we never really knew), always claiming that he could out manage whoever the current manager was.
I was born on Henry Street in downtown Brooklyn, which today is quite an upscale neighborhood. Mom came here from Paris at the age of 2 and Dad was born in Brooklyn. It was said that my grandparents had to leave Paris very quickly as my mother had pushed a bottle of milk down from their second floor window sill, killing a horse standing in front of the building. They could be characterized as Roaring Twenties Flappers My families’ friends were truly International: Mexico, Syria, Lebanon, Hungary, Latvia, Ireland and Italy and my mother cooked in all languages. The Syrians especially came for her baked Kibbe’ which they said was better than they had in Damascus. The Metres family who I considered my aunt and uncle were fascinating. Theresa was a living angel. Her father was a general in the Mexican army. She eloped with Jim Metres, who was from Syria and the Mexican army chased them to the border. Uncle Jim would honor me in later years by allowing me to play Pinochle with him and my father, Aunt Theresa made the best Chicken Mole which when made right I love to this day. During the depression my parent fed many a jobless and very poor family. From there we moved to the Bronx where my grandparents had a well known Appetizing store on Allerton Avenue (smoked lox, sturgeon, Beluga Caviar, homemade pickles in a barrel, fancy canned goods and exotic candies and nuts). If I was about 5 years older I probably could be running my Grandparent’s appetizing store. It was a little fancier than Russ & Daughter’s. The pickle barrels were out front. When you entered the store there was the long counter on the right with the lox, sturgeon, caviar, herrings, and pickled herring. The lox was sliced tissue paper thin. Everything was the best. On the left side a table with Halvah and trays of exotic candies and nuts from all over the world. As you went down toward the rear were the cans of premium brand sardines, anchovies, salmon, tuna and chickpeas. The Peacock brand was wrapped in a fancy purple cellophane paper. In the rear was a large freezer and a room with a table and chairs for the extended family to eat.
The pickles and pickled herring were prepared in the basement by Grandma.
We lasted only a little over a year there because my mother found out the building that we lived in was infested. Not by bugs or vermin but by Communists. So it was back to Brooklyn in a nice neighborhood in the Flatbush section. I was in the 5th grade and Public School PS 92 was around the corner. I remember a cool day when we were lined up in the school yard. The line was moving slowly (forgot where it was going but probably we were going to register). This guy behind me starts kicking me in the back of my shins every once in a while. Finally I turn around glaring at him and he smiles and says: “Can’t you talk?” So that was the beginning of our long friendship.
So, now it turns out that Louie Dinolfo Jr. (Louis to his family) lived diagonally across from where we live. His family had a house and my family had a 5th floor apartment. Until I went off to college we spent lots of time in each other’s houses. We adored each other’s families. At one point we put up a wire across Clarkson Avenue attached to tin cans so that we could talk to each other without the phones. We had lots in common from Baseball to getting in trouble, which Louie was ALWAYS the instigator. In school I was in trouble from day 1. Louie sat directly behind me and would manage to get me in trouble with our home room teacher Ms. Breslin. There used to be large ink bottles to be used to fill the inkwells in the desks. Now Ms Breslin loved her plants which were near the windows to the left of our desks. Louie’s idea was to have me pour the ink into the plant dirt and he would warn me if the teacher turned around. So what does my friend do? He tells me to go ahead just as she is staring down at me. Hell to pay. I’m marched into the principal’s office and my mother is called. My mother was the only person that I feared on earth. In those days there was no such thing as ‘time out”; you got smacked. But even she had to laugh when Ms. Breslin shouted: “It’s either HIM or ME that’s leaving this school.” Things calmed a little bit and although we were both Yankee baseball fans the Dodger stadium (Ebbets Field) was just a few blocks from where we lived. The bleachers were 55 cents and sometimes a kind usher would let us sit in the grandstand. Even better my synagogue (Judea Center) and his church (Holy Cross) were giving out free tickets on alternate weeks. So first Louie and I line up at Judea Center and get our tickets and the next week we go to Holy Cross. Louie says that when the Nun with the tickets comes to me I should ask her if we could get better seats. (It took me a while to learn with Louie that he always had something planned.). The nun is in front of me. One hand was holding the tickets and the other hand was holding a 12 inch ruler. What in the world was she going to measure? I smile. “Sister. Is there any chance that we can get better seats?”. She gives me a fierce look that I can picture to this day. “Hold out your hands”. WHACK! She slams the ruler with that metal piece inserted (I guess to draw lines with) on my hands and the stinging is unbelievable. I knew there and then that there was no way I would ever become a Catholic. The memories of the games that we saw were great however.
After school, weather permitting we played all kinds of ball games with a pink ball that we called a Spaldine. A Spaldine was a little smaller than a tennis ball but it had a lot of bounce. It was especially effective when you played “Stoop Ball”. That is where you threw the ball aiming at the point of one of the steps on the stoop. (the stairs going up to the doorway). That beside games of marbles, Hide and Seek, Ringaleevio, Johnny on the Pony, Stickball, punch ball and others was what we enjoyed.. One day it was just the 2 of us playing stick ball. Louie hits one over the fence into a yard. (Louie was an excellent ball player) This little mean looking kid picks up the ball and puts it into his pocket, Hey! Throw that ball back over here we yell. “You want the ball come here and see if you can take it from me.”.Well, he was kind of small so it didn’t take the 2 of us to get the ball back. (Of course who do you think was egging me on).
Now Louie and I are of course known in the neighborhood as 2 wild characters. Doesn’t this guy know that? We are now face to face. All of a sudden the blows are coming from out of nowhere. This little runt is beating the crap out of me. Louie is laughing hysterically. We didn’t get the ball and when I realize that street fighting is not boxing. I then decide to take boxing lessons and eventually join the Boys club on avenue A and 10th St. in Manhattan in order to learn the art of boxing. Even though I am slow on my feet and my father advised me against it I pay him no mind. In fact one night I come home from a match with a bandage over my right eye where I had received a cut. My mother was playing cards with her group. She looked up at me as I walk into the apartment and she tells her card group that she will be right back. Mom then stands up, motions me to the bedroom, closes the door and from the floor her hand comes flying up and hits me across the face. As I go reeling across the bedroom she states that my boxing career has just ended. And it did. Both of Louie and I were great Babe Ruth fans. The Babe was dying of Cancer and he was giving a farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. It was a sunny Mid June day. Our seats were in the grandstand. His voice was pitiful and his uniform hung sadly over what were once very broad shoulders. It was sad but we were glad that we went. During our late lunch at a Chinese restaurant we commiserated over the fact that despite his foibles he would have made a great manager since he had an instinctive knowledge of the game and its players.
Louie and I had many adventures. The superintendent of our building was a mean Norwegian Nazi. There was a large center table in the center of our apartment building and Louie lifts one end and then lets it down with a large bang. Mr. Nelson the super comes running out and he smack me. We then did everything we could to torture him from hitting him with snowballs, from even getting our friend Sid Gordon who was a famous ballplayer that lived across the street to fire snow balls at his head to turning over the garbage cans filled with used coal, which he brought from the basement. When we were creating mischief sometimes the police would chase us but we knew every back alley and hiding place in the neighborhood. They never could catch us. Louie got me fired once from my job delivering dry cleaning, when he grabbed the cleaning and dumped them in a garbage receptacle, so when I delivered the dry cleaning they stunk like you wouldn’t believe. No surprise that I was immediately fired. On Friday’s I would load up on candy from the money that I received as tips. There was this local candy store on the corner where were well known and friendly with the owner. One Friday Louie is bragging to the owner that I could eat a dozen ice cream sundaes with nuts, whipped cream and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. Joe, the owner said that if I finished them within an hour they would be free and I’ get a couple of dollars to boot. Joe obviously didn’t know who he was dealing with. I finished them all with 5 minutes to spare. I wasn’t feeling too well but our crazy friend Fitz (Fitzpatrick) got so excited that he ran into the street (Bedford Avenue, a busy street) and was nearly was run over by a car. Amazingly he ended up stretched out under the car and he was unhurt. The day that the Korean war broke out 4 of us went to the Marine recruiting station to volunteer. Lou and I were too young but the other 2 were accepted. Sadly these brave Marines would both be killed at the famous Chosin Reservoir battle near Hagaru. Eventually Lou would end up in the air force and me in the army.