Memoirs – Chapter 4

NORTH MERRICK  1934-1937

In October of 1934 we moved to 47 Grand Avenue (later renamed Gianelli Avenue) in North Merrick, the home where, except for one semester at Ursinus College and my time in the army, I lived for the next 15 years. This house was really in the boonies… mostly all farms, cows and pigs and all. A nearby Italian family raised grapes for his wine, and would sell us a bushel of grapes which Mom used to make a year’s worth of grape jelly. The total population of North Merrick in the 1930 census was 500 people. Bob was going into his sophomore year at Baldwin high school and I was starting the 5th grade at North Merrick grammar school.

There was a red-brick school, but North Merrick had such a small school population that there were some combined grades in the same classroom. Years later, as I was writing these memoirs, I went to the school and copied this picture of the school, the way it looked in 1934 before it was expanded in 1940.

The house had electricity, but no other public utilities were available. There was no mail delivery or post office in North Merrick, so we rented a box at the Merrick post office. There was no garbage collection so we burned our garbage and buried the cans and bottles. We did have milk delivery and there were various other food and laundry services available to the home.

We had an electric water pump, which made us better off than the next door neighbors who only had a outside hand pump and an outhouse, but their hand pump came in handy in 1938 when the hurricane knocked out our power for two weeks. The furnace was a coal burner, and the kitchen stove was run on kerosene. Occasionally that gave an odd flavor to the food. Hot water came from a coil in the coal furnace, so there was no hot water in the summer. Later we had an ice box… no refrigerator. Gradually, Mom got the improvements she wanted. We had a small coal hot water stove installed in the basement, and part of the time it was my job to keep it going… coal stoves are terrible. We got a bargain with a company that installed propane tanks at no charge if we bought the kitchen stove to go with it, so that was next. Then Uncle Henry (Mom’s brother) was working for Servel, a company that made gas operated refrigerators, so we got one of those. That ended the problem of forgetting to empty the tray under the icebox that collected the water when the ice melted.

The old furnace was a simple hot air system that had one big register directly above the furnace, and eventually Mom found someone who would install radiators and an oil burner. We always had that old register in the floor, and it came in handy one time when the water pump stopped working properly. It seemed that the well in the basement had gone dry, so we needed to put in a new one. We decided to put it right under the old floor register, and that gave us a lot of room to swing a sledge hammer and pound in the new well pipes right through the living room floor opening.

The house only had two bedrooms, and Bob wanted one of his own (and I suppose I did, too.) At about that time some modifications were going on at Tante’s house and a small stairway was being taken out, so we brought it to our house, and had Wolfe (the carpenter we bought the house from) install it to the unfinished attic. Poor Mom had to give up most of a closet to do it, but she figured it was worth it. Bob and I now had our own rooms, Bob upstairs and me in the downstairs front bedroom.

Mom always wanted a separate eating area, so the breakfast room was added on the back. In her artistic way she wanted it to look like nature, so she bought wallpaper with ivy crawling all around. I can remember clearly the problems we had putting that paper on the ceiling.

Mom was pleased to have a yard where she could grow vegetables (string beans, peas, lettuce, asparagus, etc.), and berries. We did not have any chickens after we moved from Commonwealth Avenue. We had a sour cherry tree but it’s main crop was tent caterpillars which we burned out with sticks that had flaming kerosene rags wrapped around the end.

I started going to the North Merrick grammar school which created a problem since they had only full-year classes, and I had jumped ahead a half year when I was in Merrick. So Dad talked them into moving me ahead another half year for my remaining three years of elementary school. Although I did well enough in my school work it made me at least a year younger than the others in my class, and this became a problem in high school… being young and small and under developed socially.

I began enjoying a number of hobbies when we settled into our new home in North Merrick. Dad always had an interest in science, from his high school days and the time that he and his Uncle Oskar had tried to get gold out of the ocean waters. He had two pre-war folding cameras, and got us interested in photography. Both cameras used glass plates instead of film. They had an expandable bellows and were focused by moving the lens varying distances from the ground glass on the back of the camera. When you had all the settings of the camera ready you would slide a plate holder in the space between the ground glass and the lens, remove the protective shield and snap the picture. The cameras did not have manufacturer names on them but we got to know them by the names on the lenses. The oldest had a Wollensak f6.3 lens and accepted 9×12 centimeter plates.

The other camera was newer, and had been given to us by Uncle Emil when he bought the latest style roll-film camera with twin lenses (one for focusing and one to take the picture). Our new (to us) 6.5×9 cm camera had a faster Goerz Dogmar f4.5 lens and we soon found that we could get film holders, and even later we could get a device that held a pack with 16 sheet films. We continually saved our small earnings to upgrade our cameras, much like people would later do with computers.

By using two layers of old drapes that Mom had saved we made a lightproof wall, and thereby created a darkroom in the basement. We boarded up a window and built a worktable near the basement laundry sink. Then we started taking pictures, developing negatives, and making contact prints. Soon we wanted an enlarger, but couldn’t afford one, so we took his older Wollensak camera, which was also the larger one, and rigged it up with an old gallon Mazola cooking oil can as a light housing, and some means of moving it up and down, and we were soon making enlargements. Of course photo paper was expensive so we didn’t make very big enlargements. This photo was taken with my first camera, a $1.00 Baby Brownie, which I received for Christmas in the mid-1930s.

Bob was a Boy Scout and in those days there were no Cub Scouts, so I eagerly looked forward to my twelfth birthday when I would be eligible to join the scouts. Although I enjoyed the meetings, I had less enthusiasm for achieving high levels in scouting, slowly working my way no further than second class. I went camping twice, once to a camp that the Nassau County scouts had set up in Northern Nassau, perhaps what is now Plainview, or perhaps closer to Huntington. What I most remember about that place was our having to cross the abandoned Vanderbilt Motor Parkway to go from the camp site to the swimming hole, which I suspect was an abandoned sand pit. The second camping vacation was to the official Long Island camp, Camp Wauwepex, in Eastern Long Island. My only memory of that was going alone on a 15 mile hike, which was required to be a First Class scout. Our scout troop, which met at the Lutheran church in Merrick had problems getting the scoutmaster to all the meetings, so I ended up being assistant scoutmaster and running most of the meetings. The marching in drill formation which I learned and led at the scouts held me in good stead six years later when I had to go through the same thing in the army.

Bob’s scoutmaster was a radio ham, so he started getting Bob interested. Well ham radio enthusiasm did not stick with Bob for very long since he was more interested in chemistry. Dad had taught me a little about electricity… how to wire lamps, and how they worked, so when Bob picked up the ham radio knowledge he did spend time passing it along to me. Pretty soon I had the electronics interest, and played with crystal sets, and would go to bed listening to WEAF, the local NBC station, with my earphones. WEAF was only two miles away, and came in loud and clear.

By 1936 Bob was deeply into chemistry in high school and he brought that interest home to our basement darkroom. Soon we had a whole chemistry lab set up, sharing space with the darkroom equipment. At the same time I had a workbench outside the darkroom with electrical stuff. We always seemed to need more chemicals, lab equipment, photo supplies, or electronic parts. We would read Popular Science and get all sorts of ideas that we wanted to carry out. Mom and Dad helped by taking us on shopping expeditions to New York City where there were all sorts of stores for the science hobby crowd. We would go to the chemical hobby houses such J.C. Winn, and then go to Lafayette radio or to all the small radio parts shops on Cortland Street. One of those shops, Arrow Radio, is now the largest distributor of electronic and computer parts in the country. At that time they would have big baskets of radio tubes in front of their 20-foot wide store, selling tubes that were “guaranteed to light” for five cents. Just guaranteed that they would light, not that they would work.

Our jaunts to the city almost always also included a stop at Willoughby’s, New York’s largest camera store on 32nd street, a half-block from Penn station. It was here that we bought our photo supplies which included photo paper, chemicals, parts to make the enlarger, photoflood bulbs, etc. None of our cameras were adapted for the use of flash bulbs, and besides we would have been too broke to spend money on them. It was here that I spent my hard-earned money on a used Ihagee folding camera, the first of many cameras I purchased over the years.

Sometimes we would go to “the city” on a special occasion, a birthday or anniversary, or to visit Gram. One time we went in to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We went early and had lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the second floor, overlooking Broadway and, along with our chow mein, we could see the balloons from real close.

At the same time the New York Post, which Dad read all the time, had offers with coupons that could be turned in to purchase inexpensive sets of books. I had a set of Mark Twain books, which I later gave to Jessica Worthing, and Bob has a set of Charles Dickens, both from that bargain deal. We also bought a two volume dictionary, an atlas, some symphony records and a record player with the same NY Post coupon scheme. There are about five symphonies that I can recognize, since those were the records we had. Phonograph needles wore out quickly after a few plays, and since they were expensive, by our standards, we tried all sorts of plant thorns as substitutes. Since thorns were good enough for Thomas Edison they were good enough for us, until we found a brand of needle that lasted for many plays, and was not too expensive.

Bob would show me some of the experiments he did in his chemistry class in Baldwin High. One time he took a piece of glass tubing and heated it red hot in a flame, and drew it out to a fine nozzle. He inserted it in a hole in a rubber stopper and showed me how it would fit into a flask. Then he placed some zinc in the flask, covered it with hydrochloric acid, and put the stopper with the tube into the top of the flask. He waited a minute or two and he lit the gas coming out of the tube. Pure hydrogen was coming out of the tube and it made a beautiful blue flame.

In our small town of fewer than 1,000 people, my class was small, and we had a Science Club of about ten students Each of us would, at one time or another, do some sort of science project for the club. I decided to show the science club the hydrogen experiment that Bob had shown me.

The Science Club students were all there, and so was Mr. Viemeister, the principal. I put the zinc in the flask, added the hydrochloric acid, lit a match, and held it to the end of the nozzle. BAM! CRASH! The flask exploded, the cork and tube flew out and hit the ceiling, and glass came showering down, all over the place. I had forgotten on vital piece of the demonstration, the importance of waiting a minute or two until all the oxygen had been expelled from the flask. With the oxygen remaining in the flash there was an explosive mixture there.

When I returned to the school for a visit a couple years later, the spot was still on the ceiling where my experiment had gone wrong.

Bob had his paper route, delivering the Nassau Daily Review, for pretty much his entire time in high school (1934 to 1937). His territory was just Southwest of the center of town (the location of the railroad station). When he had an activity at school I would substitute for him although I might have been just 10 years old at the time. By 1936 or 1937 I had my own newspaper route just Northwest of the center of town.

I had bought a bigger (28 inch) bike and rode it to school, then to the Merrick railroad station to pick up the papers and then delivered them in the area where we had lived in Merrick. By the time I got home it was often dark. Fortunately the new (used) bike had a headlight because the state passed a law requiring reflectors and lights on bikes. The newspaper was printed six days a week, and sold for 3 cents, of which I kept 1 cent. Once a week I would stop at each house to collect the 18 cents for the week’s papers. Some people gave me no tip, some tipped 2 cents, and my favorite customers gave me 25 cents so I had a 7 cent tip. Once in a while, particularly in bad weather, Dad would pick me up in the car and drive me around the delivery route. I continued delivering papers until the start of my senior year in high school. This was just the time when Newsday was started and the Nassau Daily Review went into decline.

There were always chores to be done around the house, such as keeping the coal stoves going, carrying out the ashes, taking out the garbage, etc. I got a special allowance for polishing Dad’s shoes, and I was jealous of Frank Schneider who had a fancy shoe holder gadget attached to the wall which made his doing the same chore a lot easier. Although I saw Frank once in a while it was not often, after we had moved north. We then started being close buddies again when we were back together in high school.

Mom sensed that Dad paid more attention to Bob than me so she had me help her with some of her activities. She taught me cooking and baking, cautioning me not to hold a measuring spoon over the food while filling it, lest it spill excess into the food. She taught me how to use the sewing machine. She had me thread the needle as she developed arthritis in her hands, and had me lubricate the machine when it needed it. We looked for food sales and shopped together in the newly invented supermarkets in Freeport.

Mom was very interested in nutrition and health and regularly listened to food programs on the radio, such as Carlton Fredericks. In the 1930s she was already using corn oil for cooking, rather than saturate fats. We never had soda in the house so I don’t like soda or champagne.

After moving to North Merrick I pretty much lost track of most of the fellows I had befriended in Merrick, but there were new friends to be made. I still come across a few of them, for example Joe Creighton who comes to our class reunion group sometimes and Bert Wessman who visited us in 1989. The one that we saw most was George Schneider whom we saw every few years until he died about 1987. Although he was no relation of Frank’s, George and Frank married Jean and Joan, who were cousins. George’s widow Jean (nee Cullen) bought a condo in Cocoa Beach while Joan was dying, and still lives there in the same condo section where Frank and his new wife Dorothy lived before he died. Confusing, eh?

Those years in North Merrick should have been the time for social development, but it didn’t happen. Mom and Dad rarely had guests in our house; perhaps once or twice we had a couple from Dad’s work. I was busy after school with the newspaper route and didn’t get together after school with others. I never learned to keep up conversations, never learned to dance well, never dated. I spent my time in the evenings alone or with Bob in our chemistry, photography, and electrical labs downstairs. I grew up working alone, and thereafter, all my life I have worked alone and never been successful in leading others. I never learned to delegate authority and yet supervise the responsibility of others. In high school I was never elected to lead any of the activities, but worked alone or with just one other person on projects, such as running the candy sales with Don Weller, or selling yearbook ads with Arthur Berger. In both cases we shared the jobs, but really worked alone.

Later at Servo and Trio I was nominally in charge of projects, but always had someone to supervise others. When I didn’t have such a person I was generally unsuccessful. Later, in politics or computers or Mepham Alumni I always did my projects alone.

Grammar school was easy, and I needed to spend little time with homework. We didn’t live near any close friends so I spent much of my spare time with the science hobbies. I was always curious how things were made and how they worked and then, gradually, my interest turned to electricity and radio. My seventh grade teacher, Miss Benjamin, told me her brother was studying to be an electrical engineer at Rensselaer Polytech in Troy, and so I decided at that time to become an electrical engineer. I started reading the radio handbooks, building crystal sets, and even started playing with vacuum tubes. When I got to high school I took my first radio course in my senior year, even though I was fairly knowledgeable beforehand.

Of the forty six students who graduated with me from North Merrick, only fifteen went on to graduate at Mepham. In those days many students did not go to high school, but went right to work from elementary school. For that reason New York State required that students show proficiency in many subjects before graduating, and that was done with statewide Regents examinations. The exams were carried out very carefully, with students separated by empty chairs, and warned that if they cheated it would be noted on their permanent records so they would never be able to get a government job. Imagine, this was told to students in the fifth through eighth grades, as we took the exams. I have a Regents diploma that shows I passed the exams in reading, writing, spelling, English, arithmetic, geography, and U.S. history.

I graduated from grammar school in June 1937, at the same time that Bob graduated from high school. He was to move out of the house, going to Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, returning only for summers. I got ready to go to W.C. Mepham High School, which was in North Bellmore, a 2-mile bike ride away. It was a time of celebration and transition for my parents as well. Dad was doing well at his job and for the first time we bought a new car, a 1937 Willys.

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