There are times we try so hard to do the right thing for our kids that we end up getting it exactly wrong. That happened to me more than once when I was young. I understand why, and I don’t really blame anyone for it, but it taught me a lot about handling some things for my own two children.
America is a mobile society. We are constantly on the move in search of a better education, a better job, or a better life. We are sometimes criticized for it, but the truth is this is still a land of opportunity, and it’s hard to criticize anyone for taking advantage of his heritage. Nevertheless, the need for my family to adjust to the hard days of WWII made tough problems for me as I entered my pre-teens, a time which can be difficult.
At age 10 I had not the slightest clue that the winds of change were blowing for my family. Had I been a little older, or had we been deeper into World War II, I might have foreseen what was coming, but I didn’t. On the morning of the last day of school before the Christmas holiday, 1942, I left our house at 53 Brook Street, spent the day in Public School 16, and was surprised to see my brother Frank waiting for me as I came out. Instead of turning west toward Brook Street and home, we turned south, headed around the easternmost foot of Ward Hill, which split eastern Staten Island into two parts. We traveled southwest along Van Duzer Street, a street I had never seen. After a long walk we came to a three-story apartment building. It was my new home.
Not one word had I heard about a move, not a single word. Out of the blue the only home I had ever known was gone, along with all my friends and everything I knew. Nobody so much as ever said why, then or later. I now understand what happened, but trust me, Johnny, at that moment you could not have found a more forlorn kid in the whole of New York City.
Why in the world would a family move without saying one word in advance to its youngest member? The answer is that they thought it would be “best” for me. You see, both Bill and Frank had been alerted they would be drafted in no more than two months. That meant their small paychecks would soon be gone. And Harry Johnson, soon after the move to be my stepfather, had a job which would not allow him and Mom to meet the costs of running our place on Brook Street. The answer was a move to an apartment the family could afford. That’s fine, but a social worker in some New York City agency had advised Mom that the best way to soften the blow for me was to make it swift and short — like ripping off a bandage.
Thank you, social genius! In your next life, please come back as a New York City kid who has to fight — one-by-one — every kid in a new neighborhood until the question of who can beat up who is no longer in doubt. I not only got robbed of the chance of saying goodbye to all my old friends — including Eleanor, my girlfriend — but by the end of the third day in my new neighborhood I felt like I had made the “acquaintance” of half the kids on the planet.
In my own creative way I made up for it, though. The rocky cliffs of Ward Hill stood between my new neighborhood and my old one, so up and over I went some days, to meet with the old gang and regale them with tales of fights won, lost and scheduled.
Well anyway, having finally found my rightful place in the kill-or-be-killed hierarchy of my new “home,” and no longer having to prove myself every day, I went off to upstate New York by train in the summer of 1943 to enjoy a vacation with my brother, Charlie, who stayed up there for reasons I’ve mentioned before. Didn’t have to prove a thing up there. Charlie was top dog in the small town of Brasher Falls, not to mention head altar boy.
After a busy summer I came home, expecting to be able to enjoy a restful status as “just another kid” in the new neighborhood, which had turned out to be all right, possibly because of a little blond named Anita who had the ability to take the edge off things.
Did I say restful, Johnny? Ho! Ho! Ho!
Guess what Mom told me a week before Christmas?
Not just to a new neighborhood. This time to a whole new town 125 miles away.
Tell you about it next week.