Memoirs – Chapter 5
HIGH SCHOOL 1937-1941
High school was one of the best periods of my life. Except for the long bike ride to school, which I hated when it was cold or rainy, school was what I loved. Learning came easy, and there were all sorts of activities.
When Bob was ready to go to high school there was no high school in our district, so when the students finished with the eighth grade they went to some neighboring school district. In 1933, when he graduated, all of the nearby districts claimed that they were full, and no one would accept the Merrick graduates. Dad took the situation in hand and went around to all the local towns and begged until Baldwin agreed to accept that year’s crop of Merrick graduates.
There was a state law that would permit the creation of Central School Districts… that would allow several elementary districts to join together to form a high school district. The schools Superintendent for Southern Nassau, Mr. Wellington C. Mepham, a Merrick resident, succeeded in having the Central District #3 formed with Merrick, North Merrick, Bellmore, and North Bellmore. The first class started in an abandoned wooden school building in Bellmore in 1935, and the third class started in the new ultra-modern building in 1937… just as I was starting my freshman year.
An essay contest among children in the four districts called for suggestions of a name for the new school. Nearly 600 papers were turned in and, an overwhelming number suggested that the high school be made a memorial to Mr. Mepham.
After my family moved to North Merrick I saw little of Frank Schneider until high school. In Merrick I was a half-year behind him, but circumstances of different school semesters in the two schools caused us to get together again, now in the same class, when we were in high school. From then on we were the closest of friends.
We were both interested in science, math, and electricity, and in our junior year our physics teacher, Mr. Almstead, asked whether we would like to take the special radio course he was teaching. Well, we both took it, and it was the start of our careers in electronics. I suppose he was more interested in the communications part and I was more interested in the technology, but we each did both. When he came to Mepham in 1939 we became friendly with Frank Merklein, who was also interested in radio. Photo (left to right): Merklein, Schneider, and Worthing.
In addition to the course there was a radio club that built the amplifier system for the football field, and a radio transmitter. Photo (left to right): Dick Hummel, Bert Wessman, and Gene Rode building the radio transmitter. Frank was eager to talk on the radio, or rather to communicate by code, and often made contact with an retired Navy Captain who happened to live right next to the school. After many radio contacts over the schoolyard fence Frank visited Skipper Bunker (W2AA) and became a good friend.
Years later Skipper gave Frank Schneider a radio that was used on one of the Antarctic expeditions. After the radio had banged around in Frank’s mother-in-law’s basement and various other places I suggested to Frank that he give it to the National Geographic Society in exchange for a life membership. They verified its authenticity and for the rest of his life he received the National Geographic Magazine.
Another radio ham transferred to the school, so Frank and I started spending a good bit of time with Bob Schill. He had a nice transmitter and receiver setup with a good long 200 foot antenna which made it possible to talk over long distances with the low power that he had available. I never seemed to enjoy the banter that went on with ham radio, being only interested in the technology, so I never bothered to practice the Morse Code that would be necessary to get a ham license. The technology served me well in always making it easy to understand what I was learning in the electronics courses I took in high school, college, and the army. Over the next two years Frank and I spent many hours with Bob Schill and another radio ham, Sy Yuter. From them we enriched the learning we were getting in school, and we continued those contacts until we went off to war. I saw each of those fellows at least once more, after the war, but I don’t believe that Frank did.
In March of 1941 the FCC changed all the frequencies of radio stations, and it presented a business opportunity for Frank and me. Together we went to a number of his neighbors and readjusted the push buttons on their radios, for 25 or 50 cents per house call. Resetting push buttons, in those days, was not as simple as today’s car radios, but entailed elaborate screwdriver adjustment, and readjustment, of at least two screws for each station. This was my first business partnership.
Since my grandfather and Uncle Harry had been musicians, my mother wanted me to be musical, and so I joined the junior band. I inherited a cornet that had been passed down from my grandfather to my Uncle Henry and it was now the instrument I would play in the band. Bob had gotten a gift of a silver clarinet from Uncle Harry and he was pretty good with it, but I was a lousy musician, perhaps because I had no interest in it and I hated to practice.
I stayed in the junior band for two years and then moved up to the senior band in my third year. Although the French horn is much more difficult to play than the cornet Mr. Pritchard, the music teacher, switched me. That was because he couldn’t find any one else who would take it. By my senior year I decided I didn’t have time for the band and my band grade was pulling down my average, so I dropped out. I don’t think they missed me.
Having enjoyed photography which we started at home several years earlier I logically joined the camera club (photo from the camera club picture in the 1940 yearbook.) They had a good darkroom (one that didn’t leak light as ours at home did), their enlarger was better, and the chemicals were already prepared, so I stuck with that activity all four years.
By the time my junior or senior year rolled around Mom decided that my newspaper route was taking too much time from my school activities. Bob was out of the house, and although they had college bills for him, he was able to take care of a lot of the expenses with a scholarship and job at Ursinus. Mom and Dad started to give me a small allowance, and I supplemented it with various jobs.
As I think back on the years before I graduated from college I really tried all sorts of work. As soon as I was old enough to get working papers, which I think was the age of fourteen at that time, I started to work at Jones Beach. That was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years (1938). Bob introduced me to the manager of the food concession and I was able to go to the beach and hope that they were busy enough on a Saturday or Sunday that they needed extra help. Sometimes a bunch of us would wait around all day, and still not get a hour’s worth of work (or pay). The work for us “extras” was to go around with a long-handled dustpan and sweep up cigarette butts and other debris. After doing that for that first summer I was allowed (the next summer, 1939) to dispense ice cream or frankfurters. Gradually I worked up to being a “regular” and be assigned to specific food stand. That meant I could expect to be getting a full week’s pay, unless it rained, in which case we didn’t work. As an extra the pay was 25 cents an hour, but the regulars were only paid 19 cents an hour. It was, however, worth the lower hourly wage in order to get the reasonable assurance of working.
By my junior year (1939-40) I was getting deeper into school activities. Except for band and English my grades were mostly in the 90s or upper 80s. I decided to do something about the English grades, and since my English teacher also advised the school newspaper, I decided to work on the paper, The Buccaneer. My reporting wasn’t good enough but I was put to work selling ads and writing headlines for the articles in the paper. I can still remember how difficult it was in those days to create headlines that would fit properly in the columns, balancing the word lengths, type sizes, and column widths. Oh, how easy it is today with computers!
Miss Mattfeld, the school paper advisor later married one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Almstead. Twenty years later I visited her in Albany, then saw him when we went with Joan to look at St. Lawrence University, and since corresponded with her when we had our 50th class reunion.
For Christmas of 1939 a friend of mine, Dick Sweeney, got a present that he really yearned for… a manual Speed-O-Print mimeograph machine with automatic paper feed. He wanted to start a newspaper in competition with the official school paper, the Buccaneer. By the time he was putting together the second issue I was on his staff, having quit the Buccaneer.
I did everything… sell ads, gather articles from the contributing writers, type stencils, print the paper, collate and staple it together, and then go out and sell it. The paper sold for two cents a copy, and we had a larger circulation than the Buccaneer which was distributed free to all members of the student organization. It was a great experience which taught me many phases of a business. I guess I was an essential part of the operation because someone wrote a filler piece for the January 15, 1941 issue entitled “Jurgen”:
At this time we would like to familiarize you with a word that is quite well known in the editorial staff of this paper. The word is “jurgen.” It means perseverance, and its origin is really quite interesting. Last year while working on “Trade Secrets,” we’d often become disgusted and tired, that is all except Jurgen. He’d keep plugging. If anyone would start complaining, we’d merely say, “Aw, you just haven’t got any jurgen.”
With this cartoon Pat Pinkham, in her June 1940 gossip column, flashed the news, “Jurgen recently installed a phone. Need we say more?” She didn’t mention that it was the first time we ever had a telephone in our home.
The paper was fun and we were able to do the publishing over a few afternoons of typing the mimeo stencils, printing, collating, and stapling. Unfortunately Dick lived south of Merrick Road on the Wantagh/Seaford border, making the 4-1/2 mile bike ride a long one. Somehow we struggled through those long, often night time, winter rides; one has much more energy when young.
Sweeney kept the paper going for a little over a year, and even tried to start a local newspaper in the summer, an enterprise that never really did well. But Trade Secrets was successful, and earned enough money from sales and ads for Dick to buy a car that we used a lot during our senior year. One day Dick was speeding around the school parking lot and a wheel caught in a rut as he was turning a corner. The car flipped over on the roof, but neither he nor the car nor his female companion was hurt, so punishment by the principal was minimal.
Although Trade Secrets kept me busy on weekends there were still plenty of extra-curricular activities at school. Everyone had to participate in intra-mural sports, so I did my thing, substituting assistant manager of the track team for actual running. I was sorry that there was no way to get out of gym class as easily.
The stage in the auditorium had an elaborate modern system for controlling the stage lighting. I learned the details of the system from the custodians and thereafter worked on most of the stage performances doing either stage lighting or spotlights from the projection booth.
Towards the end of my junior year the class elected officers for our upcoming senior year. Sweeney and I prepared a campaign flyer when he ran for the office of Treasurer, but he lost anyhow (my entry into political campaigns).
During the senior year I worked on “Treasure Chest,” the class yearbook. Arthur Berger was the business manager, and since he knew me from Trade Secrets, he asked me to be assistant business manager. That meant going door-to-door selling ads. I was getting accustomed to selling after The Buccaneer and Trade Secrets.
In fact it seemed I had been doing lots of selling. From the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal when I was ten, to the Nassau Daily Review all the years when Bob and I were delivering the paper, then ads for The Buccaneer, Trade Secrets, and Treasure Chest. Meanwhile I had been hawking hot dogs at Jones Beach or trying to sell greetings cards door-to-door. For a while I was selling Miles Shoes, but that didn’t work out well because I was too lazy to memorize all the styles and numbers, and so I didn’t earn much in the way of commissions.
Then there was the Christmas season I worked at Danzigers Sporting Goods store cleaning up, stocking shelves, and occasionally taking care of customers. Our family doctor, Dr. Levine, owned the property on which the old Wantagh post office was located, and one Christmas he arranged that I could work sorting the Christmas mail.
For two summers I sold Fuller Brushes. The first time, after my junior year, Bob was selling them in Rockville Centre, and since I did not drive yet I went there with him and worked a part of his territory. The next year, after I had graduated I bought a used Model A Ford for $35 and worked my own territory in Brightwaters. One problem was that I needed to put up $200 as security to cover the demonstration kit and purchases from Fuller. I went on my own to the First National Bank of Merrick, asked to see the president of the bank, Mr. Weller, and asked for a loan. He arranged for me to get the loan, perhaps because I was a good friend of his son, and he had chatted with me a number of times at his home. Much as I hated selling, or rather the rejection of people not buying, I made enough money that summer to get me started at college that fall.
In between all the jobs I also worked as a pin boy in several bowling alleys. That was a time before the invention of pin-setting machines and each alley (or two) had a pin boy who sent the ball back to the bowler and then picked up the knocked-down pins and reset them. One had to be careful to hop up on the backdrop quickly, not to be hit by an oncoming ball or flying pins. We earned a few cents, perhaps a nickel, per game.
After school I worked for Arthur Berger’s parents, who owned Berger’s Jewelry Store in Bellmore. Again it was cleaning up, washing the big windows in the front of the store, etc. When that job faded I did similar work for a competing jewelry store, Von der Heydt’s, down the same street in Bellmore.
Towards the end of high school I was saving money for college and had put aside quite a bit. In 1941 Bob needed some money for his last semester’s expenses at Ursinus so I lent him some, which he repaid when he started working for General Chemical Company after graduation. He had been dating Gay during his last year in college and the next March, after he got settled at his job, they were married.
Here I was back being a salesman for the yearbook. Since the country was still in the Great Depression we tried to keep the cost of the yearbook as low as possible, and even though we sold ads there still was not enough money. So Don Weller and I ran a candy selling scheme in the school. We were allowed to use a convenient storeroom to store candy and we sold it after school. The greatest portion of sales, however, were made by a group of girls of our class who walked around the halls after school. The “Candy Girls” would have a box of 10 or 20 five-cent candy bars and before long they would have sold all the candy and come back for more. For a puny 16 year old guy it was quite enjoyable to have these 17 and 18 year old most beautiful girls in the class come to our candy room every day from 3:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon. It is easy to see why I didn’t have time to deliver papers or play in the band. We sold lots of candy and made lots of money for the yearbook.
I remained friendly with Don Weller over the years, although I didn’t see him very often. We spent a lot of time together in high school with the candy business, but I was not there to see him the time he had a fight with Jim Biggs over the affections of a girl (I’m not sure which one). Later I was best man at his wedding but rarely saw him again until, finally, he came to our 50th reunion in 1991. He had moved to Las Vegas and died there in 1996.
Whereas the trips to Manhattan with Mom and Dad had at first been to buy chemicals or photo supplies it now switched over to radio parts. Fortunately radio parts are recyclable, whereas chemicals are not, so their journeys westward decreased. It meant that there were fewer trips to New York with my parents.
Besides, I started going to the city on my own. I would ride my bike to the Merrick railroad station, where there bike racks, but instead of taking the train or bus which cost quite a bit for my limited budget, I walked to Sunrise Highway and hitchhiked to Jamaica. From there I could take the new subway to anyplace in the city for five cents. I would often go to see my old buddy from when we lived in Astoria, Johnny Holborow, and stay over night at Gram’s apartment. My aunt Ruth and Uncle Henry had rented an apartment a couple blocks from the end of the “El” line (the elevated subway). Gram lived with them, and then Agnes was added when she and Henry married, and then Henry, junior (Baby Snooks) was added. Eventually, Henry and Agnes moved out, and Ruth and Gram moved to Greenwich Village, closer to Ruth’s work.
There was big excitement in the spring of 1939 when I was 15; the New York Worlds Fair opened. There was a special offer for students of a large number of tickets to the Fair for 5 dollars, and I invested my hard-earned cash. I would hitchhike to the fair, and perhaps meet some friends, and see the sights. It was especially beautiful at night. Although I got to see most of the exhibits my greatest interest was in the amusement area that had the girlie shows. It was a problem, not yet being the legal attendance age of 16 and even being small for my age, but somehow I did get to see most of the shows at least once. After the fair on a Saturday I would take the subway to Gram’s apartment in Astoria, stay overnight, and then go back to the fair again on Sunday. To make life even better the fair lasted two years.
I hardly did any dating until the last semester of high school. I had no interest in the girls I knew from North Merrick, as well as their all being older than I. Since it was a long distance to the other communities, and I didn’t have the use of a car, circumstances just kept me from it. Once Mom pushed me into going to the Worlds Fair at night with Bob and his friends to see the big bands. I was not good at dancing and didn’t care for it, but I asked Elsie Schlichter, a beauty from my class. Then Mom wanted me to go to the Junior Prom, and I asked Muriel Glassberg who was in the band and camera club with me. In my senior year I asked Amy Cohen to the senior prom. That was about all the dating that I can recall doing until towards the end of my senior year. Jimmy Biggs dated Amy many times after that, and we remained in contact for years.
Dick Sweeney had started dating Ivalee Chambers and she wanted a date for her best friend Cecilia Hirsch. So that started a lot of double dating, and since he had the car, transportation was not a problem. Then I bought my Model A and Cecilia and I dated, on and off, over the next couple years until I went into the army. Dick married Ivalee after she graduated, the next year, and a respectable time later they had a daughter. Dick went into the merchant marine service during the war and, to the best of my knowledge, never came back to this area. When I was looking for alumni for the 50th reunion of my class I learned that Ivalee remarried and, I was told, that both she and Dick had died. Cecilia’s sister told me that Cecelia had died in 1987.
High school was about over, and it had been the best years of my life. The principal, Mr. Calhoun, had instituted a program of giving school letters to students for non-sports activities as well as sports and I had gotten several. I can remember that I had one for the drama club (stage lighting had gotten me the nomination.) Although I met the requirements for the National Honor Society I was kept out until my last semester, I believe because I gave the teachers a hard time. I made the honor roll almost every semester, and still had plenty time to enjoy myself.
I had passed the tests to get my junior drivers license, bought a car, and I went off to a summer of selling Fuller brushes and loafing on the beach.
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