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.