Perhaps I should set the stage to give a better picture of where I came from. I grew up in a normal, somewhat small, and close-knit town in Long Island. The name of my town is East Meadow. No one among us was overly rich or excessively poor. We were the middle class. We had our little town features, the movie theaters, the town pool, which was over on Prospect, and Eisenhower Park, which was on the other side of town on Hempstead Turnpike. There was a bowling alley on Front Street. There used to be an arcade called The Wizard of Oz, which we in the town called “The Wiz.”
I lived in a basic, Irish Catholic or Roman Catholic neighborhood, which was hard for me because I was raised in a Jewish household—but not only that, I have Irish blood in me as well, so safe to say, I was the only Irish Jew I had ever met.
Otherwise, there was very little mixture as far as race was concerned. The only introduction of ethnicity came from the military housing in Mitchel Manor, which was minimal. There was racism though. That’s for sure. The Manor kids basically stayed to themselves. There was very little interaction with me, which is not to say that I was racist towards them or they were hateful towards me. We just never mingled too much, at least not often.
Mom and The Old Man never stood for this kind of talk in the household. They were somewhat liberal but more independent in their beliefs. My parents were understanding of outside turmoil and racism and wanted the world to be a fair place, which it wasn’t, which also made this difficult for me because several of my friends had hateful families and when I said what my family opinions were —well, let’s just say this didn’t go over well.
(Safe to say, I learned at a young age: never talk about religion or politics because this starts fights!)
Racism was very real. So was Antisemitism. It still is but the world was different then. The 70’s were on its way to a close and the 80’s were about to be underway.
I was a kid. I had no idea about politics. I didn’t know much about the difference between culture or religion. I didn’t think much about the difference between black or white. I thought we were all supposed to get along.
I didn’t understand about things like the oil crisis or why The Old Man used to drive so far just to get the best price of gas, which, apparently was a thing back then.
Men in the town would brag about where the bought their gas. I remember it. I also remember waiting on line with The Old Man at gas stations, but I never knew why. I didn’t know what Iran was. I didn’t what the Middle East. At the time, the only East I knew about was my town of East Meadow. In fact, I hardly understood what oil was. I just knew we used it. I knew we needed gas. Was there more that I needed to understand at that age?
There was tension back then but the tension was different. And sure, people were screaming about inequality and hatred. Times were hard but more so, people simply endured back then.
There was no complaining. There was no form of social media. Nobody had cell phones. We did have pagers (or beepers) at the time. We used pay phones back then.
We were certainly more communal back then, which is not to say there were no problems at the time—it was just easier back then. It was easier to keep life secretive because no one had camera phones, and above all, people minded their own goddamned business.
I was never taught much about hatred at home but I learned this anyway. I think my first lesson in hatred came when I was about 6.
There was a black man that lived next to me. His name was Mr. Praus. He was very dark-skinned.
He was from Brazil with a very thick accent. He lived in my neighbor Laura’s house. She was older and closer to elderly. But she was a kind woman.
She had a lot of dogs, a big garden in her backyard, and an ex-husband that came to visit her from time to time.
Mr. Praus lived in Laura’s house but there was no romance. It seemed more like he was helping her and she was helping him.
Mr. Praus worked hard. He was kind, although, I admit I was distant from him because it was hard for me to understand his thick accent.
Laura’s was the brick house, fourth house in, and north of Front Street. She had nice plants in her front yard and pretty landscaping. She was kind to me and my family. The Old Man liked Laura. He liked Mr. Praus too. So did Mom. They were good people.
One day, the police and firetrucks came to our street. It was at evening and the sun was about to go down. Apparently, someone place a wooden cross on Laura’s front lawn and lit it on fire.
I was scared. I remember this. I remember Mr. Praus and the look on his face. I remember Laura. She was sad too. She was originally from Germany (I believe) and had lived in Belgium (I think) so her approach on life was different. She had also seen what war does to countries —especially wars based on racism.
Laura was kind and warmhearted; but moreover, she was brokenhearted. Only, she didn’t weep openly. She just endured.
I remember the swirling lights from the police cars and firetrucks. It was warm and there was an odd sense of urgent quiet. I remember there were news reporters. I was in my blue pajamas (the one-piece kind with little feet on them) when The Old Man told me, “Come with me.”
The Old Man was upset about this. He was hurt. Then again, The Old Man knew what hatred was. He had fights as a kid for being Jewish.
In fact, one time, a group of kids beat The Old Man up for not giving up his Tallis, which is like a scarf for those that don’t know—only, this scarf has religious meaning to it.
The kids never got the Tallis but The Old Man took a beating. And when he got home, his Father, my Grandfather was tough on The Old Man about this. He punished The Old man and sent my Father back out to find the kids that beat him and fight them back. I never knew how the rest of this story turned out . . .
But back to my time, The Old Man grabbed me and had me walk next door with him. The Old Man walked me passed the police cars and the policemen. There was a deep stillness to the moment. I felt the tension in the air. I was young. Too young to understand but still, I could feel it.
The Old Man walked me passed the firemen and the local onlookers that gathered just to see what happened. We walked along the sidewalk and up the pathway to Laura’s front stoop, which is where Laura and Mr. Praus were. I suppose they were giving a statement to a detective.
The Old Man walked up to Mr. Praus and extended his hand. Mr. Praus Shook my Father’s hand as The Old Man said, “Not everyone feels this way. Just so you know.”
Mr. Praus had large brown eyes, which were bloodshot at the time. I can recall the look of appreciation and the quiet nod the old man gave my Father.
Afterwards, The Old Man grabbed me by my hand again and said, “Let’s go.” And we walked back home.
The Old Man wanted everyone to see this. He was a hard man. He was not shy of a fight and hated bullies. The Old Man would have welcomed anyone if they had something to say about this but no one said a thing.
I recall seeing the charred wooden cross which was about three-feet high. I asked The Old Man about the cross. I asked because I knew the cross had something to do with God.
I knew the cross was not something in our house, but still I knew there was meaning to it.
I asked, “Why would someone do something like that?”
“Because they’re stupid” said my Father.
Our town seemed so much younger then. Our country was younger then too. And yes, there were problems. And I’m not sure if we had more problems than anyplace else. I’m not sure if we had fewer problems either. I just know this is where I grew up, five houses north of Front Street.
There was history to my town, although, it faded by my time. There used to be an airbase in my town, which I believed the airfield closed a short while after the Korean War. My home was on a main street. I lived at 277 Merrick Avenue.
Across from my home was a vacant field. This was the last remnant of the old Air Force base. There were a few spots of roadway and old fire hydrants. The acreage was a big size and ran across Merrick Avenue from Front Street over to Glenn Curtiss Boulevard.
The vacant lot ran pretty deep as well with paths and trails which some of the kids rode dirt bikes through. There were tree-houses and occasional forts that would be built by younger kids and then later destroyed by older kids. I know this because I was there and built some of them. I also know this because when I grew older, I destroyed some of them too.
This place was my playground. This is where I would dig for buried treasure. There is also more to this place for me. I had good things happen here, and bad things too, which will come later in this story.
My town was the same as any. We had streets. We had houses. We had our share of American flags throughout the neighborhood. Vietnam was not too far behind and there was still a feeling behind the war.
And again, no one was abundantly wealthy or excessively poor. The homes were basically modest. And mine was too. We had dogs and pets and fish and things like this. We had a den and a family room. I had my own bedroom and my brother Dave had his.
I used to walk these streets in my town. I walked to school, each day, which is not to say that I always went to school. But still, I walked there every day.
I was mainly a good kid. At least, I wanted to be a good kid. I was mischievous for sure. I had my setbacks. I had my feelings of insecurity. I was good at heart but capable of having flare ups and tantrums. I was not good in school and there was more to it but overall, I was a good kid.
I played in the ball field. I played baseball. I played football for one season, but everyone grew much bigger and I stayed the same size.
I tried basketball when I was in the sixth grade, which was hard on me. First, I was not good. I never played the game before. Second, I was small and short and weak, which made it hard for me to shoot foul shots. And third, I played in the C.Y.O. league, which stands for Catholic Youth Organization. So yes, safe to say, I was the only “Jew” on the team.
Before playing a team sport, I was told “It’s not if you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.” But apparently no one else got this memo.
I joined a team because I wanted to “Play.”
I wanted to have fun but there is no fun on the bench. There is no fun for the average or (in my case) below-average player.
My first basketball practice—
I was excited. I didn’t know any of the other kids on the team, except for two. Most of the kids went to religion class together. And me being of a different religion, well, that left me out.
My first practice and I was nervous. I was scared but excited. I was sure I would make new friends. I was hoping I would make new friends. I could be a new kid too.
We lined up for layups, which is a common shot in basketball. The drill is to dribble the ball, get to the net, jump up, shoot the ball and hit the backboard in the box above the net and sick the basket.
Easy enough. Right?
Well, little me was at the end of the line, waiting for my turn. I was ready to take my shot. I was excited and one by one, my turn was coming.
And then I was next.
I felt my heartbeat pounding. I loved it. This was great!
I felt my adrenaline pumping. I believed this must be what it means to feel alive. God, I was sure this was going to be great.
I was about to take my first shot on a basketball team at practice. I was about to show my new friends what I was capable of.
And then it was me.
I had the ball. I dribbled the ball. I ran up and approached the net. I leapt upwards. I shot the ball. AND BAM!!
I shot the ball a bit too late. The ball hit the bottom of the backboard and shot back and smashed me right in the face.
The entire gymnasium echoed from the laughter of the other kids on the team. I was humiliated —so much for the new friends.
Being hit in the face certainly hurt but the physical pain was nothing compared to the pain I felt when the rest of the kids laughed at me.
There was more after this. There was hazing. There was a fight because I never knew who the Blessed Virgin Mother was. I was asked if I believed in Mary.
“You know who Mary is! She is The Blessed Virgin Mother.”
“She’s the Mother of God!”
“God has a Mother??”
Someone screamed, “He’s a Heeb! He doesn’t know!”
I was too young to know much about religion or the difference between them. And I never met anyone named Mary either. And I know I was young but I was old enough to know what a mother was, and old enough to know what a virgin is.
I didn’t know what the word “Blessed” meant, but I did know that one could not be a virgin and then a mother at the same time.
So when asked if I believed in the Blessed Virgin Mother, I said, honest and wholeheartedly, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
This led to a locker room melee, after which, I said “Okay fine, I believe, I believe, but you guys should learn what a virgin is!”
Like I said, so much for the new friends.
I moved away from the athlete crowd and found other ways to occupy my time. I found myself enjoying trouble.
On one hand, the trouble I created became a voice for things I could not say. My behavior became my voice. This was slowly becoming my image.
There were times when a few of us would steal booze from our house. We experimented young. We were very young to be honest. I think my first drinking fiasco happened when I was somewhere around 9.
I learned a few things that day. One, I learned that alcohol does not taste very good.
Two, I learned that I needed to learn how to drink better because I threw up and the room was spinning around.
And three, I learned there was something to this. I learned that for the moment, I was alive. For the moment and even if this was only a short while, I was alive. The lights were bright. I was unafraid. There was no pain, at least not until later, and I was comfortable enough to laugh.
There was something to this for sure. And smoking, well, why not? There was an edge to it, right? I mean, I could look cool, or tough, or bad ass, as if to say like, I don’t care what you think.
I had no idea the way my life was about to pick up. But I was about to find out. And quickly too.