Friday, June 10, 2011

Thanks Brooklyn


In writing this little blog, it’s been a challenge trying to convey what growing up in 1950s Brooklyn was like for those who didn’t live it. It must have been the same for my parents trying to get me to understand what it was like going through the Great Depression of the 1930s; there’s no frame of reference. Every decade has its own feeling I guess. For me, I wouldn’t choose any other time or place to spend my childhood. After WWII and the Korean War, America was poised for one of the greatest periods of technological and economic prosperity ever seen in the world.

Of course none of this mattered to a ten-year old on the streets of Brooklyn. For me the world was bounded by Bushwick Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Pitkin Avenue and Howard Avenue. This small section of Brooklyn called East New York contained everything I needed to be happy. Along with a group of friends whose sense of adventure and curiosity matched my own, we tackled life head-on, making mistakes and learning as we went. Between 1948 and 1958, I was never bored. We had our seasonal activities that came and went as regularly as the seasons themselves.

Spring ushered in baseball season, pea shooter, carpet gun and water pistol wars, card games on the stoop and building homemade scooters from empty wooden fruit crates and recycled roller skates. Summer meant swimming at local beaches and pools, marbles and stickball games, and on those long summer evenings, playing Ring-a-levio and Johnny-on-the-pony until dark. Fall brought basketball and football in the park, roller hockey using a roll of electrical tape for a puck, and long bike trips far beyond the familiar boundaries of the neighborhood. In winter came sleigh riding, building snow forts, collecting and trading comic books, and of course setting fire to a big pile of discarded Christmas trees.

There was always something going on, and if by chance there wasn’t, all I had to do was ring a couple of doorbells. In the age before telephones or television, it didn’t take much to amuse us. If somebody had a pocket knife, a yo-yo or a spinning top, we were good for hours. We weren’t above mischief either. A cranky neighbor who refused to let us retrieve a ball from his yard might find four flat tires on his car. Maybe one of the group would get hold of a couple of cigarettes, a can of beer, some fireworks or even a girlie magazine and the game was on. We would find a deserted hallway, post a lookout, and plunge into the abyss. We sinned knowing that at the end of the week we could confess to Father Gonzalez, secure in the knowledge that he spoke little English and would always absolve us with the customary three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.

I believe that growing up in the low-tech ‘50s stimulated kids to be active. Everything was hands-on; we explored and experimented rather than sitting back passively waiting to be entertained. This was especially true when school was out for the summer and we had maybe 12 hours to fill. Our mothers didn’t want to see us except for meals, so street games became our Nintendo. We ran wherever we went, so obesity was not a problem. We ate what was put in front of us. I don’t remember a single kid with a peanut allergy. Differences were settled in kid fashion by kid rules, usually without fighting but not always. Parents parented and didn’t overdose hyperactive kids with Ritalin when a smack to the back of the head was a lot cheaper and more effective.

I wonder what kind of a person I would become if I was born today? I am far from perfect, but I can’t help believe that the kind of childhood I was lucky enough to have helped instill in me positive values like hard work, continuous learning, thrift, and appreciation of family. My faults are my own, but my virtues I owe to the streets of 1950s Brooklyn.


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3 comments:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I think that the generations to come need Brooklyn. They need the life style we had to develop their imaginations, their creativity, and their sense of adventure, all things you and I have learned from the concrete. Our brains, our poorness and our lack of awareness that our lives were different from any other way created guys like us, and I think for the better.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Melting pot neighborhoods like the one we grew up in are fast disappearing, and there is a greater division between the haves and the have nots. The haves are getting things handed to them and the have nots are fighting just for survival. I agree that we could use those neighborhoods again to teach kids how to make it in the world, but I fear they are gone.

Vincent Abramo said...

Vincent J. Abramo from Arlington Va. said

I was a Bay Ridge kid..1949-1959. Did it all as you described ...
Other adventures.
1. Riding the outside of the public buses on 8th Ave while holding on to the gas tank recess or hanging on to one of the back windows.
2. Walking the subway tunnels on the catwalks between 59th St and 92nd St. on 4th Ave.
3. Right after a big snow take a sled and grab onto the rear bumber of cars for a ride down the street(watch the manhole covers)
4. Roasting mickies (potatoes) in vacant lots over a small fire.
5. stacking cardboard boxes high and identifying it as "Hitlers House" and setting it on fire.
6. Jumping on freight cars (while they were moving at a crawl) in the railroad yard just outside of Bush Terminal.
What an education. After leaving Brooklyn?
The military, universities and then a career managing and monitoring various initiatives and programs for the U.S. Government in over 160 countries.