Memoirs – Chapter 6
Mom once told us that a major criterion she had in choosing a husband was intelligence and knowledge and there was no doubt she got that with Dad. Bob and I always knew that we would be going to college, there was no doubt about it! It was understood. In June of 1941 Bob had just finished at Ursinus and it was now my turn.
Bob was already working in Pennsylvania so I didn’t have the transportation I had the previous summer selling Fuller Brushes in Rockville Centre. In order to go back and forth to the territory that Fuller assigned me this year in Brightwaters I needed a car so I spent $35 for a Model A Ford convertible with a rumble seat. Here I am, sitting on the front fenders with Don Weller. We repainted the car with some red-brown paint Mom had, including the canvas roof which was leaking when I bought the car. It ran well, and I rarely had to use the hand crank. The horn made a sound like “ah-oo-gah” and I added a couple other horns with a three-position switch so I could be selective with the sound. Before cars had directional signals I modified the electrical circuits for the tail lights with a switch and flasher device so that they blinked appropriately, in a way that several years later would be on all cars. Unquestionably, my Model A was distinctive.
Cars are so much simpler today. Before starting the Model A one had to turn the key, turn a lever to retard the spark, turn a lever to set the throttle for some gas, pull out the choke handle part way, and step on the starter button which was next to the gas peddle. Then after one or two turns of the engine you would push in the hand choke, while continuing to press on the starter. When (if) the car started you immediately released the starter, and put the ignition lever and manual throttle to normal. Quite a challenge compared to today’s simple “turn the key.”
The summer of 1941, before going off to college was great… I had a car and girl friends, and was earning money. I was the only one of the crowd who had his own car (except Sweeney), so I was included in most all activities. My friends at the time were Frank Schneider, Frank Merklein, Jim Biggs, Don Weller, and Dick Sweeney, and I was dating Cecilia Hirsch.
That summer the evenings and weekends were spent at Jones Beach. The Model A carried not only my buddies, and their girl friends, but various family members, such as my Aunt Ruth and Mrs. Merklein. The car provided both transportation and a venue for recreation. On the weekends we would often go down to the beach in the morning, home for lunch and dinner, and back down for nighttime beach parties. In those days you could stay on the beach all night if you wanted, and have fires to keep warm as the season drew to an end. The nighttime activities ended when the war started in December, so it was the last summer for that until after the war.
One hot summer night, when we had not gone to the beach, we were hanging out at Jean Carlson’s house and I looked up in the sky to a most beautiful sight. For the only time in my life I saw what is rarely seen in at these latitudes, Aurora Borealis, or “Northern Lights.”
Meanwhile I was also thinking about going away to college. Bob had gone to Ursinus College, near Philadelphia, for four years, and in his last year had been speaking to the dean about a scholarship and an on-campus job for me. My grades were excellent and I had lots of extra curricular activities, so his persuasion worked and I received both.
During Easter vacation of 1941, just before graduation, I went to look at Ursinus again, and stayed in the dorm with Bob. He introduced me to some of his favorite professors, including his chemistry and physics professors. Dr. Mauchly, when he heard I had been working with ham radio, invited me to visit his basement labs that night and help with some of the experiments they were doing. As I arrived that evening he was working on circuits that were the basic counting circuits for computers, and I can still recall details of the experiments. When I finally arrived at Ursinus in September Dr. Mauchly was gone, having moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he subsequently invented the ENIAC, the worlds’s first electronic digital computer.
Ursinus looked good to me that spring, but it didn’t take long for me to become unhappy when I arrived in September. It seemed to be a long distance away, requiring many hours to hitchhike home for a weekend. I guess I didn’t like the work that I was assigned, cleaning some offices, because I kept forgetting to get up at six in the morning to do it. When they dropped me from that job they found a job off campus for me, digging and weeding for a nursery, but that also didn’t work out.
Worst of all, however was the hazing. It wasn’t too bad wearing beanies (little peaked caps like overgrown yarmulkes), but bowing down to the upperclassmen and being their servants was a problem. And then if one rebelled the punishment was several whacks with a solid wood paddle. My roommate, Fred Roemer from Freeport, was caught in an escapade with some other freshmen when they stole a local farmer’s outhouse and brought it to the top steps of Freeland Hall where we lived. It wasn’t a big hit with the seniors, and he didn’t sit down for several days.
A few memories of Ursinus, however, were happy. I spent a lot of time with a friend of Bob’s, Joe Chapline. Joe was into electronics and had built a beautiful high fidelity radio and amplifier, which I later duplicated when I moved home. He also loved to play the organ and had a key to the chapel where we would go and he would play all sorts of modern songs in the style of Bach fugues. After I left Ursinus I would see Joe only once more, when Mauchly had a press conference to announce the first UNIVAC.
There were no facilities for doing your own laundry at Ursinus so I would either go home for a weekend (and thereby have my car and dates) or I would send it home by parcel post in a special pressed-board suitcase-like shipping container that was made for just that purpose.
With no money being earned at Ursinus I found another way to get quick cash. On my way hitchhiking home for a weekend I would stop near the Philadelphia waterfront at a blood bank and sell a pint of blood for $7.50. It was the easiest way I ever found to make money, considering that it was the equivalent of $75 or $100 today. For a broke college kid it was great.
In those days you could build a small radio transmitter that provided the over-the-air connection between a phonograph turntable and a radio, and it was legal as long as the power was low enough that the signal could not be detected off your property. Someone had built one of those transmitters and souped up the power so it would cover most of the Ursinus campus, creating a small radio station, and we would spend time announcing and playing records.
Shortly after noon on December seventh someone dashed into the dorm room where we had the transmitter and announced, “The Japanese have bombed Hawaii.” We continued to make announcements all that afternoon and then shut our transmitter down.
In addition to the hazing I was not happy with studying the science and math curriculum, and really wanted electrical engineering. I needed the feeling of moving towards the designing of electronic equipment, rather than theoretical work. In the previous spring, I had applied to a number of colleges including Brooklyn Poly, Carnegie, and Rensselaer, as well as Ursinus, and been accepted by all of them. During Christmas vacation I talked it over with Mom and Dad and we figured that we could afford Brooklyn Poly if I lived at home and commuted. I liked that idea, and just after the first of the year I walked into Poly and asked if they would still take me, with full transfer credits. Since they were anxious for students (the depression was still going on) they jumped at the opportunity and admitted me.
A week later I had left Ursinus, moved my belongings north, and was riding the railroad with Frank Schneider, who was already going to Poly. From then on I would pick up Frank with my car every weekday and we would travel to Brooklyn by way of the Long Island Railroad. In the morning ride we would sit with a couple of girls who got on at Rockville Centre and were going to a Catholic high school in Brooklyn. In the afternoon return trip I would buy a copy of PM a newly created liberal New York afternoon newspaper and get my political indoctrination.
School was fun again, studying electronics and electrical circuits, as well as the usual math, chemistry, etc. I made some money on weekends in a shoe store or doing various other jobs, and I had my car. Because of the war gasoline was rationed, but my ration was usually enough for my needs, and Dad, being a probation officer which required visiting juveniles in their homes, had a special gas ration allowance that would occasionally be used as a supplement.
Poly, at that time, was located in a few small buildings on Livingston Street, behind the Brooklyn Borough Hall with one or two buildings on each side of the street and a trolley line running in between. I joined the student chapter of the American Institute of Electrical \Engineers and attended a few meetings. Now that the war had started, Poly was engaged in the war effort with a Microwave laboratory a few blocks away from the “campus.” I made some extra dollars working at the Microwave Lab, making small pieces of equipment, little wooden blocks that had a resistor mounted on it with terminal posts to connect wires for lab experiments. It wasn’t glamorous but I learned to use a few wood-working tools and earned needed spending (and tuition) money.
Poly was a commuter’s college, with no dormitories and my practice was to go to school in time for my first class and leave for the Long Island Railroad station right after my last class. Since there were very few females studying engineering, my social activities were back in Merrick.
The summer of ’42 was great. Frank Merklein was working in Manhattan at Gibbs and Cox, a firm that was designing and coordinating the construction of destroyers, and he got Schneider and me jobs there. While Merklein was in the drafting department we were only temporary employees so we ran “Ditto” duplicating machines that copied orders for changes to the destroyer’s design specifications. It was not particularly glamorous but it was good money for the summer. G & C was awarded the “Navy E” for excellence in their work and, to celebrate, the company had a big formal banquet at the Waldorf Astoria. Frank Schneider went with Gloria Pisciotta (left), who lived a block away from him, I took Audrey Schmidt (right) and Merklein took Dorothy Wilgus. It was a very fancy night, much like a prom, and we all had a great time… a memorable night.
It must have been shortly after the party at the Waldorf when Frank Schneider started dating Joan Miller, who was then a senior at Mepham High. We spent many evenings double dating or visiting Joan and her parents, Madeline and Leo Williams. We often went to Jones Beach, and when the swimming season was over the trip was for walking or talking or skating. Over the next nine months the three of us were often together, just “hanging out” until Frank and I went to war.
In August, when I became eighteen, I was required to register for the draft, but had no idea when I would be called. I started school in September, as usual, but could feel that the army was breathing down my neck. Dad’s long time friend Carl Winston was a Captain in the Signal Corps, and was stationed in New York City, making training films for the Army. At Dad’s suggestion I went to him to see if he could get me some sort of special deal in the Signal Corps, since I was rather knowledgeable in electronics by then. Well, it didn’t work out… he couldn’t get me into the Signal Corps.
Knowing that I would be going into the army sometime soon, Mom started training to build airplanes at Republic Aircraft. Apparently her background in mechanical drawing from when she worked for Bell Labs in World War I payed off, because she ended up in the Experimental Shop making prototype parts from drawings. I still have her old tool box with the hasp on front where she locked up her tools each night, and a few of her tools, a screwdriver and a nut-driver.
As autumn 1942 rolled around my friends were all busy, going to college or in the services. Joan and Audrey were nearby at Adelphi College, Cecelia was in nursing school, Dick Sweeney was in the Merchant Marines.
By October it was obvious that I would be drafted in the not too distant future, but there was an announcement that college students could finish their school year if they volunteered. Schneider went down and joined the navy, and I, not having eyes that were good enough for the navy or air force, enlisted in the army on November 25, 1942.
On June 17, 1943 I boarded the Long Island Railroad for Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, and on to the infantry.
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