Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The blizzard of 2010 is over, and what a storm it was. New York City was totally unprepared for this and made the poorest response to a snow storm since Mayor John Lindsay back in 1969. Then, as now, the City's outer boroughs were forgotten while glitzy Manhattan, home to the fat cats, was handled as a priority. As I sit at the window watching my fellow Staten Islanders try to deal with 29 inches of un-plowed snow, my mind drifts back to the days when I actually liked the stuff. From the ages of 5 to 12, I enjoyed snow about as much as any city kid possibly could. The very things that annoy me about it now as an adult are what made it so appealing to me back then as a kid.

First, schools would close. That was in the day when mothers were mostly home caring for their families and not working like so many have to these days. Today, desperate parents show up at the school door expecting their kids to be admitted no matter the conditions. NYC schools almost never close any more, and when they do, people are outraged. In the 50's common sense prevailed. Why risk teacher and student safety when it was just simpler to have everyone stay home. The State allowed adequate snow days so why not use them. If there was no other reason to love snow as a kid, not having to go to school would have been enough.

Then there was the luxury of playing in the streets. Normally crowded with traffic, playing on a Brooklyn street could be hazardous to your health. Not that we didn't manage; we played stickball between cars, and if a play was in progress we just called time until the cars passed. City kids learn early to adapt. When it snowed it was a different story. Everything was white and quiet. Old fashioned wooden sleds with metal runners came out of the cellars and soon the streets were filled with kids belly-flopping down the block. We would "chain" the sleds together by having each kid hold onto the feet of the kid on the sled in front of him, and this sled train would go careening down the hill of the vacant lot right across the street since there were no cars to impede our progress.

Snow forts and snowball fights were mandatory. Our mothers were not used to having bored kids underfoot, and so they bundled us up in snow suits and sent us out into the drifts to play. Most homeowners shoveled their sidewalks and piled the snow near the curb, unlike the idiots today who throw it into the streets. These piles of snow became the rudimentary beginnings of elaborate snow forts, as they were added to by swarming boys eager to finish their fort before their enemies across the street could finish theirs. Towers were added, then ledges on which snowballs could be stored in preparation for an all-out attack. Small windows were poked into the walls so that the movements of the enemy could be observed.

When all was ready, war was declared. The rules of war were simple: no rocks packed inside snowballs, and no attacks if time was called due to injury. We were civilized after all. At first it was an artillery battle with each side lofting snowballs toward the enemy camp in hopes of hitting a random head that chose to peek at the wrong time. At some point, when one side sensed an advantage, an all-out assault was mounted. Garbage can covers provided excellent shields for the attacking forces as they overran the enemy position, pelting combatants with snowballs they carried in their pockets or just stopped and made on the spot. A successful raid ended by kicking down the other side's fort and burying them in their own defenses.

As violent and heated as these wars might sound, it was just play. It wasn't uncommon after the hostilities for both sides to join forces and build a snow tunnel along the sidewalk mounds, or line both sides of the street and hurl snowballs at any car that dared to drive down our block. Sometimes we had to rush home to change out of soaking wet snow suits and into dry ones. Our mothers, anxious to be rid of us, performed this maneuver like an Indy pit crew anxious to get their driver back out on the track. At the end of the day, exhausted but happy, we dragged ourselves home, put our wet gloves and hats on the radiator in the hall, and collapsed. If it was a good day, a mug of cocoa and steaming bowl of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, salty enough to kill a horse, was waiting. Sublime.

I guess it's possible to use up one's supply of enthusiasm for anything. Maybe I hate snow so much today because of the intensity with which I loved it as a boy.


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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Russians Are Coming

Looking back to the days long ago when I was growing up in Brooklyn, it's tempting to put on the rose colored glasses. In reality, not everything was better then. We had childhood diseases like polio, our entertainment options were limited to the few snowy channels that came in on the old RCA console, there was no cell phone to call for help if your car broke down, and bigger problems existed that persist to this day like racial prejudice, gang fights (see racial prejudice), schoolyard bullying, economic downturns, and oh yes, the threat of nuclear war.

My Brooklyn neighborhood was mixed ethnically and racially. There were Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, African Americans (called colored then) and a sprinkling of Hispanics and Slavs. I'm not saying it was a big love fest, but by and large we all got along. Then came the gangs. Whites resented blacks moving into the neighborhood, and prowled the streets in roving packs to keep them out. Blacks retaliated by making raids into white neighborhoods looking for white boys foolish enough to walk the streets alone at night. Whites fled in droves to Long Island to get away from the violence. I still carry around some racial prejudice from those difficult days. It was hard to watch neighborhood real estate prices plunge, and a ghetto develop where a nice, mixed, middle-class neighborhood used to be.

During the 1950s, there wasn't a block in the neighborhood that wasn't touched by one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the time, polio. Also called infantile paralysis, polio struck seemingly at random. By 1950 the peak age incidence of "paralytic poliomyelitis" in the United States had shifted from infants to children aged five to nine years. It was not uncommon to see previously healthy children who used to run and play with you now wearing clumsy and painful leg braces. Frantic parents were terrified that their child would be next. Then God sent us a miracle man named Dr. Jonas Salk who, on April 12, 1955 announced the Salk vaccine, based on a polio virus grown in the lab and administered by injection. An orally administered version came out in 1958. The vaccine literally wiped out the disease, and a huge sigh of relief went up around the world.

The cold war raged in the 1950s as Russia and the United States played a dangerous game of brinksmanship. The movie "Dr. Strangelove" portrayed with dark humor the fears that prevailed at the time. In school, the brothers and the nuns drilled us in what to do if we were ever attacked by the godless heathen Russians. The first thing was to swallow your religious medal if you were wearing one, after all, what other reason was there for the Russians to invade us than to steal our religious medals. Next we were to duck and cover...kneel down under our wooden desks and cover our heads...what radiation fallout could penetrate that! In the streets there were public fallout shelters set up underground at various locations for people to go to in the event of an air raid. Knowing the high anxiety we endured back then, it's easy to understand why people my age don't usually complain about being searched at the airport. We almost welcome the grope.

Yes we had problems in the Fifites, but you know, we didn't obsess about them. Back then, by the time news was reported, most of the consequences of any possible threat were already past. We now live in an age of instant, over-sensationalized communication. Television is not content with just reporting the news, they must punch it up for a jaded audience with a five-second MTV attention span. And so a "chance of showers" becomes "a dangerous Noreaster"; or "two cases of West Nile virus" turns into "a possible city-wide epidemic" get the picture. Sometimes I think we were better off before all the electronic wolf-crying. Hey, I had my Lash Larue western comics and a fresh package of Yankee Doodles...Russians, do your worst!


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association