Every day at P.S.114 carried with it a fair amount of dread for this undersized, underweight, fourth-grader, but a certain day in the late winter of 1962 raised my terror to previously unimagined heights. It started with an innocuous bulletin board posting a week or so earlier.
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I knew I was not cut out for baseball. My hand-eye coordination was unfit for the complexity of hitting a fastball. The delicate, stubby fingers I inherited from my mother didn’t help me at all in the field. They didn’t reach halfway into a glove’s fingers. Softball wasn’t a better option. By whose definition was “soft” applicable to those balls? Still I had aspirations of being like the other guys, so I wanted to be a ballplayer of some sort. Wiffle would do, right?
I signed the sheet, took home the requisite permission slip for Mom to sign—relieving the Board of Education of responsibly in the event of my death—and waited for the league meeting to take place. The wait provided its own kind of anguish.
The league meeting was the place where the teacher in charge of after school activities would create teams to compete for the Wiffleball Trophy. I was no stranger to team creation, a special kind of heartache for kids like me.
Most of the time, teams on the street and in the schoolyard were chosen by the big, strong natural leaders among the kids. Schoolyard team captains picked me last every time except when they didn’t pick me at all. When that happened, the teacher would assign me to an unlucky team. I hoped the wiffleball league would see me assigned to a team, resulting in their disappointment, rather than having team captains make the choices, resulting in my disappointment.
I was lucky—for a moment—that afternoon. The teacher came to the meeting with team rosters already decided. Atop each team’s roster was the name of an older student who would be their captain. My name, beginning with a B, sat directly beneath that of my new captain, Fuzzy Porcaro. I wanted to run home to Mom’s lap. I almost puked. I wondered if a nine-year-old facing certain death should have a will. Please, God, not Fuzzy.
Every school has its bullies. There’s a pecking order. You have the kids who are quick to take advantage of any shortcomings they observe in other kids. If you are too short or too tall, too slim or a bit overweight, wear braces or last year’s clothes, or have the slightest inkling of sensitivity toward criticism, you are fair game for these bullies. They, in turn, are the prey of bigger bullies.
Bigger bullies are the ones who not only harass us little kids, usually extorting from us milk money or homework production, but they include regular bullies in their threats. But even these bullies have their ultimate bully. At P.S. 114 it was Fuzzy.
Fuzzy was perpetually in sixth grade. Rumor had it he was in his twenties. I suspect he was maybe 13, having been held back a grade or two. He certainly was big enough to have been a teenager.
Fuzzy never smiled. His coal black eyes could penetrate steel, and he was rumored to have put dozens of kids in the hospital. Of course, no one knew who those kids were. We did know, however, that life was a lot easier when Fuzzy wasn’t around. For the duration of wiffleball season, or until he chose to terminate me, I would be Fuzzy’s teammate.
Wiffleball league games were played in the school basement, where I would always be reminded of one of my most embarrassing moments. That basement consisted of two cavernous rooms separated by a long hallway. At one end of the hallway sat the music room, and at the other end the cafeteria and lunchroom.
Public schools in the early sixties served lunches prepared on site mostly from scratch. The food may not have tasted much better than it does now, but I think it was healthier. We even had homemade soup, and that was my downfall.
During the winter of second grade, Mom made me wear a tweed coat with matching cap. My God, it felt ugly even then, but I never questioned wearing it, even in the chilly basement lunchroom of P.S.114. One day, as I was ladling vegetable soup from the big pot at the beginning of the line, the unthinkable happened; my tweed cap leapt from my head and into the soup.
I took in the scene as if it were an out-of-body experience. I saw a small boy staring into a steaming pot; in the pot swam diced carrots, sliced green beans, and a speckled cap whose shades of brown and gray had already begun to turn red from the broth. The hat bobbed. The boy’s eyes began to blur. The hat he hated became the object of his fiercest love. How he longed for it to be back on his head. And then he cried. He wailed. This brought the lunch lady to investigate.
With her bare hand, the lunch lady reached into the cauldron, risking certain second-degree burns, and retrieved the cap, bits of potato still clinging to its brim. She handed it to the boy.
That is when it hit me that this was real. I held the dripping cap while the entire lunchroom laughed at me. Then, sobbing violently, I ran to the boys’ room, soaked the cap with water, dried it as best I could with industrial brown paper towels, and placed it on my head. Returning to the lunchroom, still with tears glistening my eyes, I asked the lunch lady to help me get some soup.
For some reason, after the laughter died down, nobody made a special effort to make fun of me. I guess no words could top the image in everyone’s brain, especially mine.
In that same basement, the masking tape outline of home plate was near the kitchen. The bases intermingled with the pillars that supported the superstructure of P.S.114. The far wall of the dining area formed the outfield fence, except for the hallway leading to the music room. That hallway was the only place a guaranteed home run was possible; once a well-struck wiffleball reached that point, nothing remained to stop its progress.
Now that I’d been assigned to Fuzzy’s team, the pressure to perform, under penalty of death, overwhelmed me and took away any chance I might have had at being a successful ballplayer. I showed up for the first game paler than usual, a little sick to my stomach, and prepared for the worst.
On the bright side, my team was amazing. Fuzzy was a thoroughly capable leader. He drew up each game’s lineup according to our batting ability. I secured the bottom of the lineup card, and never once did I disappoint; no hits were expected and none were achieved. I think I walked once and scored a run, becoming a solid asterisk in the record books.
Fuzzy also positioned us defensively according to our ability, himself being the pitcher and everyone holding down the position that best suited their catching and throwing skills. Each game found me in the one spot where I could do the least amount of harm: guarding the hallway in deep left field. Generally, if a ball got that far, the fielder’s only responsibilities included stopping it from rolling down the hall and throwing it to someone else who might throw it home for a miraculous play at the plate.
Thanks to Fuzzy’s all-around athleticism, our team only lost one game, tying us for first place and forcing a playoff for the league championship. Thanks to Fuzzy’s managerial skills, I never had the opportunity to contribute to or detract from the team. Thanks to good fortune, only one ball ever got near me. I stopped it with my foot, nervously picked it up, and threw it about 20 feet to the real left fielder.
The playoff started well, with my team—that is, Fuzzy’s team—taking a big early lead. The other team whittled away at that lead until we were barely hanging on by two runs going into the bottom of the last inning. Fuzzy got a couple of outs, but our opponents got a couple of hits. Then the unthinkable happened.
The next batter slammed the first pitch to deep left field. No one in the league had ever hit a ball that far on the fly, let alone a line drive. Fuzzy spun around to watch the carnage and, probably, to plot his revenge. I barely saw the white sphere coming. I stuck up my right hand, the one on which I’d have a glove if we were playing real baseball, not wiffleball.
Holes. Wiffle balls have holes. Lots of them. Holes make wiffle balls dance in the air, the basic challenge of the game.
My middle finger moved toward its destiny as the line drive raced at it. I could hear the expletives gushing from Fuzzy’s lips. I couldn’t see the broad smiles on the faces of the other team. I couldn’t even see the ball as it hit that stubby finger—and stuck fast, finger firmly embedded in a hole.
Game over. Fuzzy’s team wins by two. League champions, 1962.
Fuzzy, the meanest, toughest kid in P.S.114, ran toward me, his eyes glistening. He scooped up my diminutive body and he—not the team, he--carried me to the school kitchen for the award ceremony. That would have been great enough, but then he did more. As we walked out of P.S.114 into the late afternoon sun, he said,
“Do you need a ride home?”
“I can walk.”
“The hell you will,” Fuzzy answered.
He set me on the handlebars of his big black Schwinn and rode me home like I was the hero in my own parade. From then on, Fuzzy and I were... no, not friends, but acquaintances; no longer predator and prey.
My Fuzzy parade changed my life. No one messed with me anymore, just in case Fuzzy was watching. Later that year Fuzzy finally passed sixth grade and presumably went on to junior high. I never saw him again. The next year, with a confidence I’d never known before, I volunteered as a school patrol guard, assigned to protect littler kids from bullies. In sixth grade I was promoted to main entrance guard. Before locked doors with buzzers, before metal detectors and resource officers, P.S.114 had me and Robert Singleton, a fellow sixth grader, keeping uninvited guests out of the hallowed halls. Thank you, Fuzzy.
P.S.114’s main entrance in 2019
When you think of a New York City street gang what comes to mind? West Side Story’s Sharks and Jets? The Bowery Boys? The Dead End Kids? You’ll hear more about the 93rd Street Gang in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, and the classrooms of P.S.114 as far as I could tell, I had that losing trifecta of short, pale, and skinny, which equaled ugly. I truly believed that. Sometimes I still do.
Short was easy to measure. Whenever my class lined up I was third, alphabetically and by height. Jon Abrams was first. He was shorter than I, but he had dark, wavy hair and a voice as big as Ethel Merman’s. I think we were in a third grade assembly program when Jon first sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Teachers swooned. I decided never to sing again; I’d heard the best.
Star light star bright,
Send me a Bassowitz milky white.
In that one verse the gang managed to critique both my complexion and my choice of friends outside the gang. You see, the gang featured an uneasy truce between Catholics and Protestants; English, Irish, Germans, and Italians. They even welcomed Puerto Ricans from time to time. But Jews were forbidden. Even befriending the people who comprised almost half our neighborhood would get you in trouble, and a sarcastic nickname.
The gang began calling me Bassowitz after word got out that I was spending time after school with Mark, from the part of Canarsie west of Remsen Avenue, and with Scott, from just up the street. Both kids had descended from Eastern European Jews and had been touched by the Holocaust. They were my friends neither because of nor in spite of their being Jewish. We simply liked doing the same things, and we laughed at each other’s jokes. Even today, if you do those things I will be your friend 'til death do us part.
Grace Church taught us that God had called the Jews to be his Chosen People. They were special. To a church steeped in dispensational theology, reading regularly the Scofield Reference Bible, and believing that one day Christ would rule and reign in Jerusalem, we should have been thrilled to be friends of Jews. As a religious group, we weren’t. I don’t know why. I only know it hurt when my very first friends could not accept my new friends.
Judgment goes many ways, I soon learned. At the same time as I was being judged by the gang for befriending Jews, I was joining with the gang in condemning Jews to hell. To be fair, I didn’t single Jews out. I believed everyone was going to hell except for people who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus into their heart. Jews just happened to be born with the disadvantage of claiming him as one of their own but not having him claim them as his own. It seemed to make sense back then.
Mom and Pop were the exceptions. Mark, Scott, Jon, all were welcome at their house. Sure, they wanted Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah, but they never pushed, never threatened hellfire and damnation. Their method of evangelism was love and hospitality, and leave it for God to judge.
I’m not sure the Protestants and Catholics who comprised the 93rd Street Gang really hated the Jews all that much; they were just less tolerant of them. The gang reserved their greatest hatred for each other. This was before Vatican II offered the possibility of mutual salvation through the church, whether or not you followed the authority of the Pope.
In the pre-Vatican II gang, we members of Grace Church knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Holy Family Church were hell-bent idolaters who confessed their sins to a priest instead of directly to God. The Irish and Italian members of Holy Family knew beyond all doubt that the kids from Grace were “outside the Church,” and that was enough to warrant eternal damnation without even the option of Purgatory. “Prots” and “Cats” we jeered at each other. But we didn’t jeer much. Insults were only hurled when we had nothing else to do, and that was rare. Usually, we were too busy playing punchball in the street, stoopball on Kurt, Judy, or Susan’s stoop, or ring-o-leevio after dark. Only on those days when someone would ask, “What’d’ya wanna do?” and heard the response, “I dunno. What’d’you wanna do?” would arguments ensue. Then all stops were pulled, and our customary religious tolerance gave way to holy war. 'Damn Cats!' 'Damn Prots!' Insults often accelerated until one side or the other unleashed a phrase beginning with “Your mother...” Eventually we dropped the descriptions or definitions of each other’s parentage and gave the verbal shorthand, “Yuh muthuh!” That ended it, and we tolerated our differences again. Except for Jews. The gang never tolerated Jews. I did, and paid for it until I realized, perhaps irrationally, that if the Jews were God’s Chosen People, and I was being called a Jew, then that put me in pretty good company. From then on I wore the nickname Bassowitz proudly. Except sometimes late at night when I didn’t.
Short and pale I couldn’t change. My third defining characteristic, skinniness, I tried and tried to overcome, but it didn’t work. I looked and felt like the 98-pound weakling the cool guys kicked sand at in ads for somebody’s bodybuilding program, but I’d have had to gain some weight to reach 98 pounds. With twig-like arms and spindly legs, short delicate fingers, and a perpetual crew cut, I prepared myself for failure every day. Seldom was the effort fruitless, especially when bullies showed their menacing faces.
Bullies. The mere word strikes terror in our hearts. You’ll hear the story of the biggest, baddest bully P.S.114 ever knew in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canaries Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Some people are named by their parents after some great person or family hero. I was named by my brother after no one in particular.
John wanted me to be named Philip Charles. I don’t know why. And I don’t understand why Mom and Pop would allow a ten-year-old to name their baby. What were they thinking? It was 1952. My brother listened to the radio—a lot. He could have chosen Amos or Andy or Lamont or Hopalong, which would have been cool. No, he lobbied for Philip. Was it because a Philip was married to Queen Elizabeth of England? Maybe. Perhaps he thought his new baby brother was a princely fellow. That would explain my middle name being Charles, another princely name. I hated both names. I liked Rick, as in Nelson, but, being a newborn, I was overruled.
John Thomas and Philip Charles, the Baisley brothers, never really knew each other until the early 1990s when I lived in Springfield, Ohio, and John often had to fly from New York to Columbus for training on his employer’s new automated systems. By then he was in his late forties and I in my late thirties. It was time for a friendship.
Prior to 1990, it wasn’t that we disliked each other; we just had nothing in common. For a while we shared a bed, but John topped six feet and 180 pounds in eighth grade. If he’d have rolled onto me I’d have been a goner.
Mom said that one night I rolled onto John. She said I looked so sweet camped up there on his hip. The way John tells it, it was all he could do to keep from throwing me across the room. He restrained himself because he feared he might break something. A lamp or a knickknack, perhaps; I was expendable.
When John got home in 1964, a new TV show premiered that captivated viewers with its quirky humor: The Addams Family. Because of his impressive height and slim muscular build, I began calling my brother Lurch. Acknowledging one of my primary my physical characteristics as a junior high boy, he called me Stench. He also called me Bumble, an affectionate term for bum. It was true brotherly love, the kind the ancient Greeks extolled.
I loved my brother as he did me, each in our own pre- and post-adolescent way. Thanks to television—again—I found a way to demonstrate my affection.
In September 1966, CBS premiered Mission Impossible and I entered ninth grade at Isaac Bildersee Junior High School 68. Mission Impossible had the best opening sequence ever. Mr. Briggs, later Mr. Phelps, would receive the IMF team’s instructions via a reel-to-reel tape that would “self-destruct in five seconds.” It was classic.
At that time, John would sometimes work second shift at the Phone Company. (Back then there was only one “phone company.”) He’d come home about 1:00 a.m. and try not to wake me. It was probably sometime in February when I decided to surprise him.
Today, my son—heck, my grandson—could program into their phone better special effects than I used that night. But this was 1967, and I was a nerd but not a geek, and electronically challenged. I controlled my elaborate plot with extension cords and a four-switch box taken from Pop’s Christmastime Lionel Train layout.
Pop’s train layout took up half my room growing up. During December I’d have to crawl across John’s bed to get to mine. There was so little walking space.
We had a freight train and a passenger train with lighted Pullman cars. They ran in parallel and sometimes intersecting ovals through and around Plasticville, USA. Pop built roads through the town for miniature cars to drive on.
Pop’s sense of humor was odd to say the least, spawning my own, or so folks say. Plasticville had an intersection with a yellow caution sign before it that read, “Stop ahead.” One year Pop found a plastic doll’s head in a trash can on his way home from work. Forever after that head spend the Advent season in the middle of the Plasticville intersection reminding drivers to Stop! A head!
That February, I dug the switch box out of the train layout boxes and used it to power my plan. First I employed my reel-to-reel to record the opening of the latest episode of Mission Impossible. Then I dismantled a lamp so that only the wiring, socket, and bulb remained.
On the night I chose, while John was at work, I hid the tape recorder and the light bulb in his closet, leaving the sliding door open just enough for him to be able to hear the instructions and see the flash as the tape self-destructed. Using extension cords, I ran the wires from the closet, under both our beds to the far side of mine where it couldn’t be seen. I plugged the cords into the switch box and tucked it under my covers. Then I waited. Shortly before 1:00 a.m. John entered the room. “Good evening, Mister Briggs...”
I couldn’t see John’s face, but I imagined surprise. Then, precisely five seconds after the message ended, a bright flash and a whoosh sound as the tape destructed. This was followed by the highest compliment I’d received from John in all my fifteen years. “That was pretty good, Bumble.” Life was wonderful.
Thanks to my brother’s foresight in naming me, life got even better a few years later when I wanted to buy my first car. I was trying to figure out how to come up with the $800 I needed for a 1964 Ford Galaxie. Pop agree to pay half, but I was still several hundred dollars short. That’s when I learned the financial secret of my name.
It seems that somewhere in my family tree lived a man named Charlie, a great-uncle or something. He was so impressed that Mom and Pop named their secondborn, Philip Charles, after him that he left me some money in his will. For 17 years it had been earning interest in a savings account. Some of it went to buy that Galaxie, and the rest purchased furniture for my first apartment five years later.
Thanks, big brother, for choosing my name. That was pretty good, Lurch.
In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, I was short, pale, and…well, life wasn’t easy. We’ll delve deeper into that next week in Episode Nine of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Grandma had no TV when John was little, just a piano. And John had the 93rd Street Gang.
Due to our age difference, I can’t tell you the names of all the 93rd Street Gang members of John’s era. Some things never change, however, so certain surnames kept repeating. Judy’s brother, Rob, was part of the gang as were Kurt’s brothers, Max and Karl, whom I idolized.
Max and Karl Kriegel built Canarsie’s most spectacular luge run, and they recreated it multiple years. Of course, all this occurred in those ancient times when New York City received two dozen feet of snow every winter, schools never closed, and we all trudged a mile uphill (both ways) to get to class.
Only two other times in my life have I felt the sheer exhilaration and absolute terror of sliding helplessly over a snow-packed hill. One was as a young adult in his first and last attempt at downhill skiing. That winter night, a few members of the church I attended in my early twenties decided to go skiing. They had experience; I had enthusiasm. After mastering the bunny slope in just two attempts, I felt ready for the next level.
On the lower slope I knew slow side-to-side skiing and a deft snowplow move could get me safely down the hill. How much trouble could I get into when descending only slightly farther at a mildly steeper angle? Not much, unless the falling temperature created an icy lane on either side of the hill, which it did.
About halfway down the hill I wanted to slow my descent and widened my path. Turning left I entered the icy patch and began an uncontrolled downhill slide reminiscent of Franz Klammer, when he was maybe three years old. No, the great Klammer probably skied better at three than I did at twenty-three.
Realizing I was going to die, I began jettisoning any and all sharp objects. First I tossed my poles, not wanting to be impaled by them. I forgot they might be helpful in regaining my side-to-side safety route. My gloves came off with them.
Then I decided my legs stood less chance of breaking were they detached from their long, flat, knifelike extensions. I kicked one off, learning immediately that one does not snow ski on one foot as easily as on water skis. (As I write this, I realize that kicking off a snow ski is next to impossible, so this part of the story may be inaccurate. I do, however, distinctly recall losing one ski somewhere on the way down.) Risking what I thought might be only one, not two, broken legs, I executed a picture perfect hook slide into third base. If baseball was played on one ski on the side of a hill, and I’d been a skilled base runner, it might have looked better than it did. Who am I kidding? I looked like a terrified beginner bailing out halfway down the easy slope.
Sliding to a stop, with one ski and all body parts still attached, I stood up. Thankfully, it was closing time. As the last skiers passed me, I walked up the slope collecting my ski, gloves, poles, everything but my dignity. That still lies somewhere in York County, Pennsylvania.
My other hill of horror was also in Pennsylvania, at a Grace Church youth retreat during winter break my sophomore year of high school. The church camp sat high on a hill near Geigertown. The road to it meandered upward through the woods and, oddly like the Kriegels’ sled run, featured two 90-degree curves. Sledding down it involved first a right and then a left. The right, if missed, would leave you in an open field where you’d eventually come to a stop. The left, farther down the slope, entered a drive bordered by a stone wall and a drop off of unknown depth.
The three days of winter youth retreat came after a significant snowfall in eastern Pennsylvania. Of course the snowplow left a ramp of snow against the stone wall alongside the drive. Of course we sledded at night when the curves were scarier. Of course, the first time down the hill, I and everyone else negotiated the curves to perfection. Of course, I wanted to go again, attempting more speed. Of course, I took the first turn with aplomb and readied myself for the second. Of course, I missed it.
In the dark I failed to turn my Flexible Flyer in time. I hit the snow-ramp leading to the stone wall and launched helplessly into the night. I’d always heard in situations like that, with death a distinct possibility, one’s whole life passes before one’s eyes. I think mine did, and I remember thinking, “what a boring life I’ve lived.” After the autobiography had finished, I was still in the air, and only a second or two had passed. Then I learned the mysterious drop off was only about two feet. I hit hard on my belly and then stopped. It was over. I’d survived. All that was left was picking up the sled, tossing it over the wall, and climbing back. Once I’d revealed the secret of the wall, everybody found a way of missing that curve.
Max and Karl’s 93rd Street sled run was that terrifying to a seven year-old. I tried it once. Want to know a secret? I’m glad the big kids of the 93rd Street Gang wouldn’t let us on their hill. I didn’t really want to do it again.
What’s the worst possible thing a sibling could do to you? Next week, read about what my big brother, John, did to me in Episode Eight of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
My elementary school years revolved around the church, my stuffed animals, P.S.114, and a group of kids known collectively as the 93rd Street Gang. The eyes of judgment still followed me, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly, except in Animaland.
Animaland was the mythical universe inhabited by me, my extensive collection of stuffed animals, other animals I’d never met, and, occasionally, my friend, Kurt. Kurt only had a couple of stuffed animals. Come to think of it, he might have had none. He was two years older than I and had probably outgrown them. Either way, Kurt and I lived in the state of Human People, a mere Rhode Island in comparison to the rest of Animaland.
Kurt was blind, almost from birth. I think it was the result of his premature birth being mishandled by the hospital. That wasn’t uncommon in the early 50s. Kurt also played the piano, had been interviewed by the Daily News, and even got his picture in the paper with Rosemary Clooney or Mary Healy or some such celebrity.
To me, Kurt’s greatest accomplishment was his daily sprint to my house from his home down the block. It was a marvel to behold, Kurt dashing out his front door, bounding down his steps, negotiating the two 90-degree turns to the sidewalk, and then racing the 75 or so yards to my front gate. He knew just where to stop and turn to enter the Baisley side of the yard at 1304.
Kurt would come over and we’d enter Animaland—the non-human states, interacting with the populace. Terriers Dot and her older brother, Spot, were my favorite residents. Oddly, their parents were Fido, the loved-to-furless Scottie who had been my brother’s first stuffed animal, and Hunter, a large red retriever.
I think for a while that Catsa was president of Animaland. He might have been a cousin of Dot and Spot. I no longer remember. He seemed very presidential, however, once he changed his name officially from Kitty Cuddles to Catsa.
One of Kurt and my favorite activities in Animaland was to loop a string over a nail in the top molding of the closet-under-the-stairs, run it through holes poked in a Quaker Oats cylinder (my first exposure to Quakerism), and make a pulley elevator to carry the smaller animals to the spectacular view from the top of the closet.
I loved my stuffed animals, keeping many of them long after other kids had tossed theirs in the trash. I still have Dot and Fido, and Dot still has the charm necklace I made for her when she was just a puppy.
Once I reached the too-old-for-stuffed-animals age, I faced some persecution for keeping them. Things came to a head one day when I was in the fifth grade and the rest of the gang was in seventh. Judy and Kurt, my closest friends, and I were sitting on my back doorstep, planning another summer day, when other kids from the Gang showed up, noticed Dot sitting on the milk box, grabbed her, and tossed her over the back fence into the weed-infested, vermin-packed parking lot of the House of the Rising Sun, our name for the abandoned tavern on the next block.
In its former incarnation, the House of the Rising Son was called the Old Road Inn. It had been named for the original street that ran past Grace Church: the Old Road. It was a classic roadhouse from when Canarsie was a farming community, replete with a bar, some rooms upstairs, and a reputation that grew long after its doors and windows were boarded up.
Over time, the boards rotted or were forcibly removed, allowing access to kids from the neighborhood. I remember the first time I entered the House through a broken basement window. I followed Billy Knudsen, the bravest member of the 93rd Street Gang. Searching the cellar with a flashlight, Billy came upon a mummified corpse, all black and in several arm- and leg- and head-sized pieces. We ran, escaping through the broken window with our lives, if not our honor, intact.
Some weeks later, after a few rounds of dare and double-dare, we went back to drag the mummy’s limbs into daylight. The arms and legs turned out to be old ductwork wrapped in black tape. The head was a cast iron pot.
That was a few years after the Gang had tossed Dot to her fate, and while the prospect of never finding Dot in that overgrown lot terrified me, I was more startled by the reaction of my best friends. They laughed. That hurt. Later, after the other guys left, Judy jumped the fence and retrieved Dot. It’s hard to be friends with the cool kids and the nerdy runt of the gang at the same time. Judy walked that line with her usual grace and charm, and I’ll always love her for that.
My most memorable time with Judy and Kurt occurred about two years earlier, during Easter Week, and no stuffed animals were involved.
In the 1960s, Spring Break was still called Easter Week in the New York City school system. Jewish kids still got off for part of Passover. Catholic kids got Good Friday off. Protestant kids got squat. Our only holiday was Brooklyn Day, in June, when Protestant churches like Grace held their annual Sunday school picnic. They say the decline in Sunday school attendance started in the 1960s. I know the date, well, not the specific year, but it began when Grace Church rented only two buses rather than three to take everyone to Belmont Lake State Park on the Island for the Sunday school picnic. Sunday school never recovered.
The best week ever, Easter Break 1962, began on a Monday, April 23rd. Easter came late that year, so the weather was true spring, late spring even. And the sun shone every day.
In those days, one of the New York TV channels showed movies on weekday afternoons, the same movie every day for a week. If you missed part of it on Monday, you could watch it again on Tuesday or Wednesday. That week, the movie was a 1944 Abbott and Costello film called In Society, which also starred Marion Hutton (Betty Hutton’s sister) as Elsie Hammerdingle, a cab driver. She was adorable. As funny as the movie was, I think the best part was that name: Elsie Hammerdingle, a classic comedy moniker.
About the same time, the Grace Church choir sang a John W. Peterson Easter cantata that included a song with an antiphonal section that echoed the words of the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. It went,
Every Peterson Easter cantata had a song like that. We, the kids who sat in the pews while our parents sang, felt obligated to identify with the mob shouting for Jesus’ execution. We were that bad. Of course, if we hadn’t been bad enough to kill him we couldn’t have been bad enough to be saved. Talk about a vicious cycle.
The chant, “Crucify him!” contains four syllables. The name Hammerdingle also contains four syllables. With schools being closed, kids watching afternoon TV, a week of mild days, and young minds bent on crucifixion, it was inevitable that the two would meet. They did, thanks to an old but sturdy wooden ironing board.
Looking back, I cannot remember where the ironing board came from. Did Judy find it in the vacant lot next door to 1304? Did Kurt’s brothers unearth it in their basement? Did I find it in the woodpile? Or did someone dump it at the House of the Rising Sun? No matter, we combined it with an old round fence post to create the nucleus of the best week ever.
Kurt, Judy, and I hung out every beautiful day that week, usually in my yard but sometimes on Judy’s stoop or on Kurt’s house’s fortress-like entrance. By Tuesday, we were still replaying the cantata in our minds and the ironing board and fence post had connected.
We discovered that if you laid the fence post on the ground, and the ironing board across it at a 90° angle, you ended up with a teeter-totter, one you could stand up on. If both teeter-totterers worked together, with a little creative tottering you could bounce each other in the air, maybe a good six inches. It felt like flying.
Those brief flights (of fancy) needed music to accompany them, and, since we were antiphonally bouncing we needed antiphonal singing. Where had we heard that recently? Oh yeah! Judy would jump and spring Kurt into the air singing “Crucify him!” Kurt would deftly land and reply, “Crucify him!” The antiphony continued until the last tottering “Kill him.” John W. Peterson would have been so proud.
That was fun, but by Wednesday we’d all seen In Society, and my schoolboy crush on Marion Hutton was in full swing. By the time we gathered for our afternoon tottering, I was ready for a new verse. As I launched Judy I sang “Hammerdingle” in my best Grace Church choir alto. Judy responded, “Hammerdingle.” Kurt joined in from alongside right through the final “Hammerding.” Judy and I fell off the ironing board in laughter, and Kurt joined us rolling in the warm grass. It was Canarsie. It was 1962. And it was heaven.
We teeter-tottered into the weekend, and then school began again. The choir sang regular songs. Someone put the fence post and the ironing board in the woodpile. The next year, during Easter week, Kurt, Judy, and I got out our old contraption, anticipating the second coming of the best week ever. We were each a little bigger, a little heavier. On the first bounce the old board cracked. Some things are never meant to be duplicated.
A few years later, another stuffed animal and another gracious human created an event that maybe didn’t change my life but gave me a reference point to which I have returned often in the years since.
That year, on Flag Day, Grace Church’s Christian Service Brigade (a fundamentalist version of the Boy Scouts invented to keep us holier than the Catholics, Jews, and—God help us—Lutherans in the regular Scouts) toured Floyd Bennett Field, a World War II era Naval Air Station that offered tours of the base and its airplanes.
I rode on the field trip with a guy named Babe. His real name was John Calhoun, I think, but everyone called him Babe. I didn’t really know him. He wasn’t a Brigade leader or a Sunday school teacher or anything like that. He just attended church sometimes. My parents knew him.
Babe drove me and a couple of other kids to Floyd Bennett. He chaperoned us on the tour and accompanied us to the post-tour gift shop. The other Brigade kids shopped for model airplanes, toy guns, and other boy stuff. I looked longingly at a little blue stuffed Scottie dog wearing a red plaid tam o’ shanter. Then Babe saw me. I was prepared to be utterly embarrassed when Babe asked, “Is that what you want? ‘Cause if it is I’ll buy it for you.” And he did.
Both the Scottie and Babe are long gone. I’m sure they run into each other often, though, in Animaland. It’s a big place.
People of every age recall a time when a snowstorm, or series of snowstorms, left their neighborhood covered with more snow than ever before. Enjoy some snow stories right here in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.