Shelter—Part Three

[This is the third and final part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]

For my mother, too, the war of the 1940s continued in the early 1950s. Like most mothers in the neighborhood, she stayed home and did the housework while my father worked a subway ride away. Inside the house, she dusted and vacuumed, listened to the radio, bought from the milkman and bread man, dealt with the Fuller Brush salesman, and watched over me as I played on the living room rug. Sometimes, when she found time, she read stories to me from a thick red book of fairy tales and legends or just talked to me about anything that came into her mind or mine.

One thing that came into my mind one fall day added yet another item to my growing stock of fears. My mother and I had just returned from the funeral of a neighbor. He was a man whom she had known well enough to chat with whenever he passed by, and so she felt obligated to attend his funeral. After we returned home and she had settled into her favorite living room chair, I gradually formed the question that had been materializing all morning.

 “Why do people die?” Having undoubtedly heard the question twice before from my sisters, she responded promptly, “Because God wants them to live with him in heaven.”

The conversation proceeded along scripted lines: “Does God want you and Dad?” “Yes, but only after a long, long time.” Pause. “Does God want me?” “No, Eddie. Not yet.”

This answer was not as reassuring as it was meant to be. It left me with the clear understanding that I was certainly going to die. The slanted sunlight made parallelograms on the living room rug, revealing dust motes floating in the still air as I worried that God might make up his mind about me pretty soon. Apparently the jury is still out.

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My mother’s life was dominated by economics; she must have dreamt of rationing and scarcity. I would go with her to the butcher’s shop on Sheepshead Bay Road and watch as she alternately flirted and haggled with the butcher to induce him to be generous with her meat ration.

I also remember her taking my sisters and me on a trip, no doubt undertaken for the sake of economy, to a grim poultry operation on 12th Street, which was several blocks outside the main Sheepshead Bay shopping area, past the neighborhood where our local Black population lived. The destination was a dirt-floored establishment—more farm than shop—that offered live chickens for sale.

The chickens were held in wooden crates until purchased. The floor smelled of what must have been offal and blood, and the atmosphere was raucous with prescient chickens. My mother dealt directly with a man in a smeared apron. She selected the chicken she wanted and the man took it, upside down and flapping, to the next room. After a few seconds of frantic noise, the man returned with a headless chicken, which he threw into a vat of hot water and then put it into a machine that spun the chicken and somehow removed most of its feathers. Then he wrapped the chicken and gave it to my mom. This trip horrified me and my sisters, and we must have made our feelings obvious, for we never took it again.

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When rationing was over, my mother switched from the local shops, where she had free rein to use her bargaining skills, to the larger A&P, where prices and portions were formalized and the shopping experience sanitized. Since she often shopped during the week, when my sisters were in school, many of these outings were mom-and-me trips. For both of us this was an enjoyable weekly routine.

The way my mom did the shopping, the A&P was filled with excitement. She showed me how to shop properly and economically—judging the ripeness of a cantaloupe by squeezing it and sniffing its button, or picking appropriately ripe bananas by squeezing (she was a big squeezer) and observing the color of the peel, especially the veins where the sections joined. She had a specialized technique for every fruit and vegetable, which essentially boiled down to using as many senses as appropriate (especially the sense of touch) for each item.

Throughout the store, she demonstrated the economical art of selection. Often, even after squeezing and looking over every fruit and vegetable in the produce department, she would accost Tony the Produce Man and have him get her the “fresh items from the back.” Similarly, she would send Rudy the Butcher on a quest for cuts of meat better than the ones in the showcase.

Tony the Produce Man was just a functionary who performed his produce management task with a good nature, but with Rudy the Butcher, a handsome young German, my mother enjoyed a weekly flirtation. She would often send him back two or three times to find even better pieces of meat or to grind the hamburger one more time. In every case, he complied with a knowing smile, a humorous remark, and often a wink. They were both the happier for the interaction.

In the impersonal parts of the market where prepackaged goods were shelved, my mother would shake the cans of soup to pick the one with the most solids, palpate and shake the cereal boxes to find the fullest one, look through every package of bacon to find the one with the least fat, hold up the milk and soda to find the bottles with the least amount of fresh air between cap and liquid, and search every shelf for the goods that had an old price instead of the current one. I quickly learned to be her accomplice, shaking, palpating, staring, and comparing relentlessly. Sadly, these practices remained with me into young adulthood.

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She supplemented store-bought food with whatever she could obtain in other ways. Sheepshead Bay was home to a large fleet of fishing boats and we occasionally went to the docks on Friday afternoons to bargain with the fishermen for a piece of cod at a good price. Her primary motivation was that such fish was unrationed, unregulated, and cheaper than in the stores, but it was also fresher and much better tasting. An added benefit was the bazaarlike feel of the scene, with its unshaved, muscular fishermen shouting flirtatiously to her as she cheerfully shouted back, demanding better fish at lower prices. We would probably have done this more often if my father had liked fish more and mistrusted Italian fishermen less.

Mom had a green thumb and when she decided to start a small garden in the back yard, it produced an abundance of tomatoes, zucchini, and greens, which we ate often. She swapped her extra vegetables for apples and peaches grown by Mr. Crafa, our next-door neighbor, a man blessed in horticulture.

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My mom’s economies were not confined to groceries. She knew the secret of making clothing last forever. Like the rest of our block, she was not too proud to take hand-me-downs from a circle of neighbors and relatives who had children a year or two older than one or another of us kids. My sisters, who were as clothing-aware as I was not, had to make do with garments that were maybe once in fashion and definitely cut for a different body. As for newly purchased clothes, my mother had a habit that I thought odd even then: She would never release for use any newly bought article of clothing until it had done time in the drawer, unwrapped, for at least a month. Maybe she always bought a larger size than needed and wanted to wait for us to grow into it. Or maybe this was simply an artificial way to make her purchases last longer.

If you looked into my mother’s past, you would find the reasons for her skill at making do with little. For one thing, she was the tenth child of an Italian immigrant mother and first-generation-American father (the final number of children was fourteen). Strictly by the rule of primogeniture, her food was scant and clothing well-used. It must have been entirely natural to transfer these economies to her own family.

For another thing, she had experienced the force of the Depression as a young woman and was accustomed to making every penny go impossibly far. She was young during both the fun years of the Roaring Twenties and the grim years of the Depression. The lesson was clear: Fun is transitory and must ultimately be paid in the coin of grimness.

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All in all, despite the tangible ghost of war and want, mine was by no means a mean childhood. I never, ever felt poor. I never had any sense at the time that I was a member of the struggling half of the middle class. I had what I needed: a family, friends, things to play with, a church to go to, and later when I was old enough, a school right across the street.

But I was wary.

Shelter—Part Two

[This is the second part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]

My father’s fear of a Russian invasion was not entirely idiosyncratic. The world that I was born into in 1946 was uneasy. Life had already proved to be tenuous and full of peril, and the end of the war had brought no more than an inchoate yearning for peace, not the real deal. Everything in my early experience suggested that we were not so much “postwar” as “at war,” for Brooklyn steadfastly maintained a war footing through the late 1940s and 1950s.

Uniformed men were a not uncommon sight on our streets, as were men bearing wounds from the war. My earliest memories include the drone of air raid sirens and the buzz of warplanes. My evening sky featured searchlights crossing and recrossing the deepening blue. We civilians had to be as alert as active-duty GIs. On one of our neighborhood walks, my father and I stopped to watch a group of men on the American Legion lawn cleaning with pungent cloths and tamping rods a World War I artillery piece, readying even this antique weapon for sudden need.

Inside their houses, parents readily assumed the role of defenders, bulwarks for their children against a treacherous world—guardians, not the parental companions that their children would insist on becoming in a couple of decades. Children were worried about, not doted on. The catered-to life of the baby boomer, now legendary, was as yet unachieved.

My job in those early years was to inhale and interpret the strange world around me. I listened as my parents and their friends swapped worries about bombs, communists, spies, fallout, missiles. The homes on my block were fortresses against diffuse, vague enemies.

And not all enemies were geopolitical.

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For one thing, doors and windows were locked at night to discourage kidnappers, rather than foreign spies. Kidnappers were very much in the news, and they were known to favor children exactly like us. The words Lindbergh Baby, first uttered in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh, Jr., was abducted, were still on parents’ tongues in 1950. I didn’t know for sure what a Lindbergh Baby was, but I knew I could easily become one at any moment.

But even the Lindbergh Baby had to yield to the most tangible fear that permeated our lives. This was polio, which, as everyone knew, kids could get from muddy water and dirty hands. Polio in those pre-Salk days was in the air. There were radio programs about it, newspaper photos of crowded polio wards, stories about every unsuccessful attempt—and there were dozens—to cure it.

I personalized my fear of polio by conjuring up a mysterious specter named Grandma Goblin; she was one of my bedtime terrors until my sister Justine informed me that she wasn’t a she at all, nor an enemy, but a good thing—some sort of experimental cure, actually named gamma globulin, which offered hope, but not in the end success, in the polio battle. Grandma Goblin evaporated, but not her foe.

Right on my street, there were at least three polio houses with kids bearing signs of the disease: steel-braced limbs, crooked spines and jaws, curled hands, crutches. Polio was real and ubiquitous. You couldn’t get away from it even in comic books. My sisters once brought home from school a Catholic comic book called Treasure Chest, which featured at that time a polio-stricken character who was forever encased in an iron lung. Like most of the content of that magazine, this brave boy was supposed to make Catholic children meditate on mortality and courage. It didn’t work for me; my imaginings never went beyond the picture of that cruel contraption.

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Polio was certainly the most prominent of our fears, but it wasn’t alone. I absorbed fear with my morning Cheerios as voices of threat dominated the radio stations that my parents favored. No matter what they were announcing, radio men of the time spoke with urgent voices. In the evening, programming switched to fictional broadcasts that thrived on peril, such as The Shadow, who lurked as a barely seen hedge against an unsafe world; The Inner Sanctum, whose creaky door suggested terrors behind our own bedroom doors; and Boston Blackie, the private eye who was a friend to those who needed a friend and an enemy to those who made him an enemy.

The Sunday papers were stuck in the war that had just ended. They featured an array of fighting heroes like Smilin’ Jack, Terry & the Pirates, Steve Canyon, and Buz Sawyer. Colorful cartoon panels showed bullet-ridden warplanes trailing dark smoke as they plunged to earth, and periscope’s-eye views of torpedo trails heading ineluctably toward Allied ships. I was too young to read the words, but their artists were Leonardos of terror.

My favorite strip was Dick Tracy, one of the most graphically thrilling and exploitive of all strips. Chester Gould, the writer, was a gifted serialist addicted to colorful villains. I shivered at Pruneface, Mumbles, Tonsils, and especially Flattop. These villains put Tracy into panel after panel of terrifying predicaments from which there was no conceivable escape. Gould liked cliffhangers, routinely sentencing me to weeks of suspense until Tracy finally cheated death through resourcefulness and determination.

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Real life in the neighborhood was as terrifying as the reported and imagined life. My sisters—especially Justine—were kind enough to warn me of the many nasty things that existed right around the corner, including an actual, documented Boogie Man who haunted a narrow alleyway off Sheepshead Bay Road. This creature had reportedly moved menacingly toward a friend of one of Justine’s classmates, who had to run off screaming to prevent him—just barely—from nabbing her. My other sister, Roni, was a fan of a feature in the Sunday New York News called “The Justice Story,” which summarized the commission, investigation, and resolution of lurid and violent murders. She took to reading sections of these stories aloud to Justine and me, her voice growing steadily more gruesome as she read.

Then there was Avenue X, a street exactly two blocks away whose name foreshadowed its mysteries. Avenue X was said to harbor a gang of juvenile delinquents who wore rolled-up dungarees and smoked. These miscreants lay in wait for unsuspecting nice kids, such as those from Avenue Z. When one of us wandered into their web, I was told, the Avenue X thugs would do things that my sisters were too decent to report in detail.

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Shelter—Part One

[This is the first part of a three-part story about the years immediately following World War II as I experienced them as a very young boy in Brooklyn.]

One day in the early 1950s when I was about 5, my father, a man preternaturally wary of A-Bombs, closet commies, and President Truman—and a fan, I am sorry to say, of Senator Joseph McCarthy—led my two sisters and me on a neighborhood excursion to see the latest answer to the Russian missile strike he was certain was just around the corner. A local lumberyard, Doody’s on Avenue Y (also just around the corner), had placed an advertisement for fallout shelters in the New York Daily News. Doody’s offered not only an enticing line drawing, but a fully assembled sample of a fallout shelter smack in the middle of its parking lot, and my father wanted the three of us to go and see it. He was convinced that everyone in America would soon accept the inevitability of these things, and he wanted to sell us on the idea early so he could put in an order and beat the rush.

I should mention that my Irish-American father was a square-jawed, George M. Cohan-style militaristic patriot, incessantly voicing regrets that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was too old—44 in 1941—to reenlist and do his bit to “beat the Japs.” He had done a bloodless stint in the naval reserve at the tail end of World War I (you know, the one against the Huns), and for that or some other reason was an avid member of the American Legion.

In fact, the American Legion was for him not only a local beer hall and griping venue but a vacation destination. Many of the pictures of my mother and father’s life-before-children had been taken while they were at a succession of American Legion conventions in glamour spots in upstate New York, like Schenectady, Rochester, and Oneida. In fact, to judge from their photo albums, the only trips they ever took were to those conventions, except for an ill-fated honeymoon to Cuba in 1930, the entirety of which—my mother reports—my father spent sunburned, seasick, and inebriated. But that’s another story.

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The Doody’s fallout shelter was an improvised-looking metal construction that, when it hove into view, reminded me of a secret clubhouse that my friend Louie Steiner and I had built on my front lawn a couple of months earlier. Louie, who lived in a lawnless apartment house about 10 doors up 19th Street from me, loved to lie on the grass patch that was the tiny lawn in front of our house, apparently regarding it as blood kin to Prospect Park, his personal Xanadu where a fabled uncle of his lived.

Louie and I were chronically in want of friends and had accordingly hatched a fantasy to remedy our problem. We convinced ourselves that a clubhouse would be just the thing to seed the formation of a gang of doughty 19th Street adventurers. It was simple: All we had to do was construct a well-appointed clubhouse and the unseen kids in the neighborhood would come.

To cover the “well-appointed” part of the scheme, we had done a pretty impressive bit of scrounging from the garbage piles and discard bins along our street and in the alley that ran behind our houses. It was our good fortune that the early 1950s were years when consumerism was on the rise, and its chief focus in our upwardly mobile neighborhood was on major appliances. Louie and I had with relative ease found, dragged, and piled together enough large cardboard boxes to form a meeting space capable of accommodating maybe five doughty kids in enviable comfort.

The cream of our collection was a large refrigerator box, followed in commodiousness by boxes that had once held a washing machine and a television set; these formed the body of our clubhouse. We augmented these larger pieces with six or seven grocery cartons to furnish alcoves, gables, dormers, and ells. We threw grass, branches, and leaves around and on top of the central structure and tossed a couple of blankets over the whole thing. So keen was our commitment to design excellence that I am sure we would have added flying buttresses to the sides, had we known what they were and had we found cartons of appropriate size and shape.

Sad to say, the clubhouse, whose parts took an entire morning to gather and whose construction consumed the whole of the same afternoon, didn’t last long enough to attract a falling leaf, let alone a queue of club applicants. Just as we were applying the final touches, my mother chanced to look out the front window. What she saw was not an attractive clubhouse but the flagrant misuse of some of her best blankets. Our edifice came down surprisingly fast.

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Compared with the clubhouse, my father’s fallout shelter was a bit larger and more substantial, but not as handsome. It was an unpainted, reduced-size Quonset hut with a rounded doorway that my father had to stoop to enter. It was made of corrugated tin standing on concrete pavement squares. Inside were two rooms. The front room was a living space and eating area, and the rear room (which could be arranged crosswise or straight back) had two bunk beds along each side with floor space for a full bed in the center. There must have been a bathroom, but I don’t remember it.

My two sisters, my father, and I entered the shelter and sat on fold-down benches in the front room. My father looked around encouragingly and began to point out the shelter’s amenities.

“This is a lot more space than I thought it would have,” he said. “ Five people could fit in here without any trouble. We could buy a hundred cartons of canned goods and dry foods and spread them around the rooms. And look, we could put lamps, chairs, and a radio in the corners, and a nice table in the middle. You could do homework or we could play games and read.

“And the walls are surprisingly thick. I’ll bet this structure is strong enough to withstand a big blast and tight enough to keep the radiation out forever. We’d be safe here.”

He stopped, out of ideas for his pitch. “What do you think?”

We looked at each other sheepishly. At last Justine, the eldest, said, “Where would we put it? Would we dig up the back yard? Is there room?” And after a pause, “Why would we have homework if they dropped the bomb?”

Roni took up the gauntlet, “And how long would we have to stay inside? At school they say fallout could be months. I don’t want to be here for months.”

I had the last word. “Where would my friends be?”

My father said nothing. We all got up and left the fallout shelter and went home.

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