Memoirs – Chapter 3
On July 3rd, 1931 we moved to 84 Commonwealth Avenue, in Merrick. I remember the date clearly because fireworks were still legal and plentiful in those days, and there was so much noise around us that our newly transplanted cat got scared and promptly ran away.
It was nice in the country. We had a chicken coop behind the house, with both Leghorns (white eggs) and Rhode Island Reds (brown eggs.) It also meant that once in a while we had our own chickens for dinner. Dad would place the chicken’s head on a wood tree stump and with an ax chop off its head. Yes, they do run around all crazy after you chop their heads off.
Merrick was truly a small town, with a total population of about 5,000 in 1930. The town was nearly three hundred years old, but the great influx of people came in the 1920s when a development of Spanish stucco style houses called “The Gables” was built between the two highways, Merrick Road and Sunrise Highway. The main street, Merrick Avenue ran from Merrick Road northwards, lined on both sides with beautiful elm trees, to Sunrise Highway, then across the railroad tracks, past the bank and post office and a dozen or so stores, past the school, and then continued on through rural areas for another 15 miles or so. The only factory was the Midmer-Losch pipe organ factory, said to have made the largest organs in the world, for the Mormon Tabernacle and the Steel Peer in Atlantic City.
Although there were a grocery store or two, a bakery, and Rahn’s ice cream store, we would usually go to Freeport for shopping, where there was more competition with lower prices. Also Freeport had a good library, while Merrick had just a small one-room library, and Dad still wanted to get books to read. We had to pay an annual $5.00 fee to use the Freeport Library, but Dad felt it was worth it, even in the years when we were barely surviving financially. I was not much of a reader, although I did like to go downstairs in the library, to the children’s section, and borrow the Dr. Doolittle books.
There was one movie house in Merrick, the Gables Theater on Merrick Road, and there were three movies in Freeport. One year a movie was produced in Merrick, the story being about a bank robbery, and they used the Merrick bank to shoot the scenes. They even used some of the local people as extras, like Mr. Sciricca, the barber, in his shop, and with a parrot on his shoulder. Because it was such an honor to make a movie in our town, we went to the Gables to see the picture.
I started to earn a few pennies selling the Saturday Evening Post, which came out every week. I would go door-to-door in my neighborhood with my Post totebag over my shoulder. The magazine sold for 5 cents, and I made 1 cent for every one I sold. Once a month the same Curtis Publishing Company also put out the Ladies’ Home Journal, which sold for 10 cents, and I made 2 cents on that. We also got colored coupons called “brownie points” every once in a while for some quantities we sold, and could turn them in for bonus gifts. I don’t believe I ever earned enough of them to get anything worthwhile. Well, that was my first paying job, at the age of seven.
When we moved to Merrick Dad was working as an editor for the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Journal. I was learning a bit about printing technology which served me well later on. Dad would sometimes bring home samples of printing materials, printing blocks with ads or lines of Linotype text. He still had his Underwood typewriter and even an old mimeograph machine. Once, after we moved to North Merrick, the school had a field trip to New York City and one stop was at the The Daily News printing plant, so I learned more about printing.
Sometime around 1932 Dad lost his job at the SAE Journal. It was the depth of the depression, and there was no money coming in.
Despite our circumstances my mother wanted us to have some sort of religious training so Bob and I were sent to Sunday school, even though Mom and Dad didn’t go to church. The minister heard about our financial problems and told Mom about a job she could get to earn a little, working in a local store-front “sewing room” that repaired used clothing for people who couldn’t afford to buy clothes.
Dad, with Uncle Emil, tried selling magazine subscriptions of “Nation’s Business,” a very conservative magazine published by the US Chamber of Commerce or someone like that. The idea of something that conservative was more than Dad could take so he had little enthusiasm, and at that time $7.50 was a lot of money for a one-year subscription, so he wasn’t very successful in selling them.
Meanwhile Bob was able to get a job delivering an afternoon newspaper, the Nassau Daily Review.
Soon Mom’s boss told them they should join the local Republican club, and they did. A while later the Republican bosses gave Dad a job as a relief investigator, handing out welfare checks and seeing that people got medical attention if they needed it. Dad made a point of asking me to help with some of the reports he had to make for the welfare department. Mainly these were his travel records, so he could be reimbursed for use of our car. This was my first experience with writing data in columns, which later in the computer age I knew as spreadsheets.
Dad also observed how his “clients” health was, and if they needed a doctor or dentist he would get them a voucher to get treatment. He was able to evaluate the doctors and dentists and our family would then go to the best of them. We, for many years, stayed with Dr. Noumoff, the dentist in Oceanside, and Dr. Levine, our primary physician in Wantagh. Around 1953 when Dr. Levine decided to take life a little easier and became an anesthesiologist, he pointed us to a Dr. Theodore Bernstein who had a practice in Levittown. As Dr. Bernstein’s practice expanded we have remained with his group for 60 years as he and various other doctors have retired or died.
As time went on Dad gradually moved up to better jobs, handing out welfare checks to veterans for the Veterans Administration, and then he took a civil service exam and got his final job as a probation officer at the Children’s Court.
Over the years when we lived in Merrick and North Merrick Gram lived in many different places. During the depth of the depression she went back to Germany, with Ruth, to be supported by Gram’s brother, Wilhelm. Some of the time she would be with us, with Ruth also. At other times she would be with Uncle Harry or Uncle Gene, who lived in the Pocono Mountains area of Pennsylvania. Harry generally drove a bus or had an auto repair gas station.
Gene also did bus driving and auto repair, but later he and his wife bought a diner in Clarks Summit (outside Scranton.) Dad always joked about the two-line sign over the diner that said: “Peggy’s Air Conditioned.”
Once in a while we would drive out to the Poconos to see Gram and have a family get-together, and it was a long ride. There were no Interstate Highways at that time, just a bunch of two-lane roads. In addition it seemed we always had poor tires, or maybe they just made poor tires in those years. Anyhow, we had to bring along all the tools to remove tires, take them apart, repair the tubes, and then pump them back up again. Often this would happen more than once on a trip. Despite the problems on the way we always enjoyed getting together with the family.
A few times we took the car and went on a vacation. One year it was to stay on a farm in Pennsylvania belonging to friends of our uncles. Another time we drove through New England with the four of us and Gram, going to Boston as well as the countryside, and another time we stayed in a cabin on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. During one of the trips we passed an auction of a family’s belongings and bought a Currier and Ives lithograph, with some civil war fractional currency and coins. I still have a weird rough-bark walking stick we bought there.
In Gram’s last year, as she was dying, she stayed in a private home in Farmingdale that was a sort of hospice, and then she went to Meadowbrook Hospital, where she died in 1953. Ruth-1931Part of the time when Gram was with us or in Pennsylvania, Ruth stayed with us and went to Baldwin High School with Bob. Later Ruth worked as an au pair in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School.
One of the first friends I made when we arrived in Merrick was Frank Schneider, who lived about a block away, around the corner. Frank was a little older, but we played together in a lot behind his house. We remained friends until he died in 1997. Click to see Memories of Frank Schneider.
When we moved to Merrick we first lived at 84 Commonwealth Avenue (click to see pictures of the house in 1931 and 2010). Next door (to the west) was Dave Finnegan who was three years younger than I and two doors away was Danny Kober who was a year younger than I. Although I played with them while we lived there I don’t think I continued when we moved a couple blocks away. I can’t recall having any nearby friends when we lived on Smith Street. My class friends, like Ralph Sisler and Bill Warm, mostly lived south of the railroad tracks in the “Gables” section of Merrick. I started school in the second grade, and was put into a “rapid advance” class and the whole class jumped ahead, finishing one year’s work in a half year.
After one year in that house on Commonwealth Avenue we moved a block away to 169 Smith Street, where we lived for 2 years. I can recall at that time wanting to smoke, picking up butts from the street, and smoking corn silk. One day my dad said he didn’t mind my smoking, since he smoked, but that I would have to buy my own tobacco. After figuring out how much it would cost, and how hard I worked for my money, I decided to quit smoking, at the age of 10.
I learned to ride a bike, and got a 26 inch two wheeler somewhere in that period. A law was passed requiring a red reflector on the back of all bikes so I got one that was handed out free at a local gas station. Once in a while I would help Bob deliver his papers, or substitute for him if he was busy, and eventually got a paper route of my own.
In 1933 Bob was thirteen and started commuting on the railroad to Baldwin High School, leaving his bike at the railroad station. They had bicycle racks there, and nobody bothered to lock their bikes.
The summers were hot, and those years were before home air conditioners became common. We were enthusiastic about swimming so we did so as often as possible. Just east of Merrick village there was a half-mile-long stretch of woods that led to an abandoned reservoir, “The Rez”. The Rez was created by a small dam that a New York City water company had built many decades before to supply water to the city. At the dam the water was deep enough so that many kids would dive there, but one day Bob either dove too deep or someone dove in on top of him and he was knocked out under water. It was a couple minutes later that he was discovered, rescued, and revived.
We would go to The Rez more than any other place, and one year Bob built a raft out of wood and empty 2-gallon oil cans (our car burned a lot of oil). Another year he made a kayak out of a wooden frame, canvas, and oil paint so we could paddle around The Rez. Also, near Merrick Avenue there was a small creek that lead down to the Great South Bay, and we would wade and swim in the creek.
On Sunday we would usually go to Jones Beach. Dad and Mom would sit in a covered balcony at the East Bathhouse and read the New York Times, and Bob and I would swim in the ocean or wander around through the numerous waste baskets looking for comic pages from the other New York papers… the Times having no comics. At that time the rules, at least at Jones Beach, required that men (as well as women) wear bathing suits with tops. Ours always had those round openings on the sides that one sees in old-time comedies.
We rarely went to the movies, since we had little money to spare in those early years of the depression. Instead our major form of entertainment was our Atwater-Kent radio that Dad had purchased in the 1920s. I still have a souvenir of the front knob that was used to tune to the radio stations. Notice that it was not marked with the station frequencies but just numbers from 0 to 100.
Mom always wanted to own a house of our own. She thought it was a waste of money to pay someone rent, and not get any thing out of it when the year was over. So Dad, who was always seeing real estate agents for his relief clients, sounded around. Eventually, someone heard of a house that could be gotten for almost nothing. A carpenter named Wolfe had bought a house construction kit from Sears, Roebuck. It was really just a pile of precut wood, and he made the foundation and built the house. Well, he couldn’t afford the mortgage, so the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation took over the mortgage and told him to pay just the interest. Since there was no construction work going on, and people shied away from Wolfe anyhow because he had been born with six fingers on each hand, he couldn’t even afford the interest. We paid him $100 and took over the $11 dollars a month payments on the house. Mom now had her home, and we owned it (except for the mortgage which a few years later went up to $27 a month I think.) We now prepared to move a mile North.
One problem remained; the two schools had different class structures. Merrick had classes broken into semesters and it was possible to start a grade in January, as well as the usual September. North Merrick was so small that it had only one whole-year class per grade.
Having finished the first grade in Astoria I started my Merrick school career in the second grade in September 1931. There were two classes of-second graders and one was designated as “rapid advance” for the brighter students and I was placed in that class. At the end of the second grade my class was to jump to the second half of the third grade.
As school started in September 1934 I was in the middle of the fifth grade. We were about to move to North Merrick and the North Merrick principal felt I should go to the fifth grade, which was just starting it’s full-year class. My father spoke up for me and prevailed by saying I was bright and would be bored repeating that half year, and that I should be moved forward to the sixth grade.
I had many school friends in Merrick, and would see them all again when I went to high school at Mepham. I graduated in June 1941 while most of them graduated in January 1942. Click to see the names on this picture of my Merrick class.
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