A Place Called Home

When I talk to my sons about growing up in Richmond Hill, NY, I sound like my father telling stories of the Great Depression. He used to tell me of days with horse drawn carriages still traversing the streets of Queens, NY. He quit 8th Grade, circa 1930, when he was 12 years old  during the height of the Great Depression. He came from a family of 10 children and he started work delivering ice in order to help support the family. He entered the Army in 1938 and served for 32 more years becoming part of the Greatest Generation, seeing combat in World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. The stories my father told seemed so ancient to me, a time that I could never really understand.

So it must be when I talk to younger people about my childhood in Richmond Hill. I was one of many baby boomers, raised by a multitude of middle class families in New York. I lived in Richmond Hill during the 50’s and 60’s. This was an era that began with the prosperity and innocence of the Eisenhower administration. It ended with a cultural revolution, the rise of the civil rights movement and civil unrest, growing tensions of the Cold War and the growth of the anti-war movement. Technology leaped from the advent of the “Space Race” to a man on the moon in 1969. By the time I left Richmond Hill in 1971, we had lost out innocence: Richmond Hill and the US at large was a very different place.

A Different Time:   During my youth, Richmond Hill was composed largely of Irish, Italians, Germans and Polish. In short, it was a lily white, middle class community. I can’t recall ever seeing any minority groups living anyplace close to Richmond Hill. Certainly, there were none in my grammar school: St Benedict Joseph Labre (SBJL). It seemed that most of us in the neighborhood were Catholic and most of us attended SBJL. In my day, we had no school buses taking us to school. We didn’t have parents driving us to school either. From 1st grade onward, a group of us from 123rd St had a “walking club” that walked to and from the 10 blocks to school every day.

There was never any fear of us children walking for long distances unaccompanied by adults. Again, it was a much different time. And our block had 7 to 8 boys close to my age, all of us marching to SBJL as a group. That was one of the best benefits of the baby boom: lots of friends close by. Next to me lived Bill Popp and his older sister, Mary Ellen. Across the street were Chris Prior and his older brother Timmy. Next to Chris were the Meades: Dennis, Gerry and Maryann Meade. Down the street were Tommy and Sallyanne Vani and Peter and Paulie Holowczyk and two older sisters, Vera and Nadia. And off the block and around the corner were Johnny and Tommy Murphy, Larry Martin and Jeff Dreizen. Walter Gryl would often come to play from a couple of blocks away. So we had plenty of young boys in the nearby area.

Names and Nicknames:  Although my name is Gerard, when I was a young boy, I was called “Rod” or “Roddy” by my family and close friends. Don’t ask me why I was called “Rod” or "Roddy." I really don’t know. I do know that my father was also Gerard and his friends called him “Gerry.” So, I had to be called something other than “Gerry.” Still, why it was “Rod” versus some other nickname, I don’t know. So on 123rd St, my group of friends always called me Rod. When I went to school, the nuns called me “Gerard.” My school friends called me “Gerry.” And even to this day, I know that anyone that calls me “Rod” knew me from my days on 123rd St.

Since this was a Catholic Community, almost all of our names were derived from the Catholic Book of The Saints. We all had to be baptized with good Catholic names. None of those 90's names like Ethan or Tyler, or Heather or Ashley, not that there is anything wrong with those names. The rule was simple: you want your child baptized in a Catholic Church then you better pick a name from the Book of the Saints. We had a lot of John's, Peter's and Paul's: it was worse for young girls as far as name variety goes. There were so many Mary's it was hard to keep track of all of them (and the derivatives from Mary:  Maria, Mary Ann's, Marianne's, Mary Anna's, and so on). 

As was the custom in the 50's and 60's, us boys had nicknames that were generally derived from our first name. For example, William would be known as "Bill." And we seemed to add a "y" to most nicknames. I went from "Rod" to "Roddy." "Bill" became "Billy" and so on. We added a "y" to nicknames even if it sounded a bit silly. Pete became "Petey" and Paul became "Pauly" or "Paulie." Fortunately, for most girls, they didn't have to suffer through the indignity of having nicknames with "y" added to it with only some exceptions. It is hard to make a nickname from "Mary."

A Catholic Community:   Our family was very typical demographically. It was a traditional, nuclear family with a Mom and Dad and two children. That seemed to be the “magic” number back then—2 children. And there was always a Mom and Dad at home. Dad generally worked as the breadwinner, and Mom took care of the home, very much like “Leave it To Beaver.” I can’t remember any single parent families at all. Also, I can’t remember anyone that was divorced. In the 50’s, in a Catholic community, divorces just didn’t happen. And if they did, people kept quiet about it or were often shunned socially.

Since we came from a largely Catholic community, we were practicing Catholics. I wouldn’t call us “devout.” That word is too overused and subject to interpretation. But as was the norm for our block, we practiced Catholicism. We went to Confessions every Friday and Mass every Sunday, as a family. We attended Catholic Grammar School and then Catholic High School. We did all those things that Catholics are supposed to do. Mom even had a mini altar in the house that she religiously used for daily prayers. We also celebrated the Catholic holidays, and really all holidays, much more “robustly” than we do now. Of course, Easter and Christmas were the “biggies.”

As a child in the 50’s and 60’s, Christmas in Richmond Hill was a very special time. We had some of the best toys ever made for children of any age. We would whet our appetites with the Sear’s Wishbook and Montgomery Ward Catalogs. And our block and neighborhood observed a strict observance calendar. There were no Christmas advertisements or decorations until after Thanksgiving. None! Retailers would advertise for Halloween, and then Thanksgiving, but no hint of Christmas before Thanksgiving. Now, all bets are off. I remember last year, I saw Christmas commercials starting in September, shortly after the children returned from school. In September? And back then, there was no political correctness. You were allowed to say “Merry Christmas,” or “Christmas Sale” without fear of reprisal or ill will.  We were all happy to say Merry Christmas to everyone we greeted. We didn’t use the politically correct “Holiday” word as a clumsy replacement word for Christmas. And almost every house on every block was decorated with lights. Now in my neighborhood, I see fewer and fewer lights on houses each year. The Richmond Hill Christmas of the 50’s and 60’s was very special indeed.

Memorial Day:   Yes, we seemed to celebrate many holidays to their fullest. This was a time when Memorial Day was a big deal, a really big deal. Every town had their own parade, and there were always many marchers as well as spectators lining the sidewalks. Richmond Hill was no different: they had a very large parade as far as I could tell. During the 60's, the men who fought in World War II were only in their 40's or even late 30's. The Korean War veterans were in the 30+ category. So our veterans were still young, there were a lot of them and our memory of their valor in two wars was very fresh.

Bill Welsch, our Scoutmaster, always enjoyed having our Troop march in this Parade. Both our Troop and Pack participated in this annual event. We would line up somewhere between 111th and 114th Street, North of Liberty Ave. Then we would take our turn marching down Liberty Ave towards 130th Street. We had a lot of marchers including active duty military units, NY Police Department, the Fire Department, bands, bagpipes, many veteran's groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other civic and church groups. It really was a very big parade. At the end of the parade, Bill would gather us at the Roby-Ryan Triangle and we would eat ice cream and sodas, before saying goodbye, and heading back home for the cook-out.

My father really enjoyed watching us march. He was an active duty Army NCO, and was a World War II veteran and a Korean War vet. He had a bad hip (owing to a German 30 cal machine gun that shattered his hip during World War II) so he didn't walk long distances without pain. He would always be camped at the corner of 123rd St and Liberty, and would salute our Scout unit smartly when we passed. I could see the pride in his face.

Even though my father didn't march in the parade, he would always join his friend Joe Schaeffer, one of his buddies from the 18th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, somewhere around 123rd St. Joe joined the Army with my Pop and they served together for most of World War II. Joe was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and often served as one of the Parade Chairmen or Parade Leaders each Memorial Day. So Pop would join Joe every year, as Joe led the parade past the Lefferts Theater, and would take his place alongside of Joe for several blocks. Then he would say his goodbyes and return to 123rd st to watch the rest of the parade. (He often joined Joe and a some other friends at the end of the parade at the local bar for a couple of cold ones. Then he would return home and start the family cook out).

Duty Calls:   Our family was slightly different than the typical family in that Pop was in the active Army and that usually calls for frequent moves to different duty stations. Pop made a choice to “homestead.” He would serve 3 years close to our home and live with us and then he would take a hardship tour overseas for 1 year. We basically had this rotation for the entire time we lived in Richmond Hill. Although it saved us from frequent moves, I did miss my father dearly when he was gone, especially when those hardship tours included combat tours in Viet Nam. He missed major events in my life, including my Confirmation, Grammar School Graduation and other major events, so I was fortunate to have the love and support from the close knit community on 123rd street.

I learned a valuable lesson from Pop's "homesteading" when I made my own career in the Army—I always took the family with me on all my assignments. Even though my young sons had to make frequent moves and make friends in new places every 2 or 3 years, I felt it a small price to pay to have their father with them for the entirety of their youth.

Go Out and Play:   This was the type of neighborhood where we never really locked the doors when someone was home. After school, especially on warmer days, front doors were always open, while the screen door let air into the house. We had no air conditioning back then, so our screen doors, window screens and fans provided the only “air conditioning” we would see. There were no video games or other activities that would keep us indoors, so we would always go out and play: yes, I mean actually play, face-to-face with living, breathing friends. Too hot, go out and play. Raining, go out and play. Snowing, go out and play.

What would we play? Anything that required some physical exertion. We would often play stickball. 123rd St was a good block for stickball and touch football, because it was a wide, 2 way street. The manhole in front of my house was usually home plate. The second manhole down the street toward 103rd Ave was second base. The third manhole further down the street by Tommy Vani’s home was an “automatic.” Anyone that hit the ball on the fly beyond the third manhole had an automatic home run. In our terminology, we never called it a home run: it was always called an “automatic.”

Of course, like any sport, the choice of equipment was paramount in importance. For stickball, you had a stick and a ball. That’s it. No gloves or any other equipment. You had a stick and a ball. You could buy official stickball sticks, but no-one did. You would saw down various household implements and tools, generally a broom stick, even a wooden shovel handle. Often time this happened without a parent’s knowledge or permission. I favored a good wooden shovel handle. It was larger in diameter than a broomstick handle, hence hitting was much easier. And, we would religiously wrap tape at the handle for better grip.

Now for the ball. This was a game with very few rules, but there were rules for our official choice of ball. We had two options: Spalding or Pensy Pinky. Stickball required a rubber ball similar in size to a tennis ball. Spalding made a rubber ball that was a pale flesh colored. Pensy Pinky was a brighter, almost pinkish hue. Both cost 25 cents plus 1 cent tax. We would buy them from Uncle Jack’s Toy Store on the corner of Liberty and 124th st. When you walked into the store, there on the left, were two boxes full of both balls very close to the register. I often though that Uncle Jack became a millionaire just by selling those 25 cent balls. And woe to anyone who would try to use any other type of ball: they would be mercilessly ridiculed leaving a lifetime of psychological scars.

My choice was always Pensy Pinkies. These would last several weeks unless you had the misfortune of hitting the ball into one of many open sewage drains lining the block along the curb. And, you had the occasional car run over a ball when our gang wasn’t fast enough to move from oncoming traffic. As for Spalding, I don’t really know why I didn’t like that brand. Perhaps, it was the way we butchered the name, “Spalding.” We didn’t pronounce Spalding like every other American, putting the emphasis on “Spal.” No, for some reason, we always emphasized the “ding” leading to a bizarre, and now funny, pronunciation of the word. Say spal-DING. Now say it again putting even more emphasis on the DING again. Okay, now you have it. That’s how we said “spal-DING.” In other neighborhoods, some kids would even say spal-DEEN, completing dropping the "G" and further corrupting the correct pronunciation of Spalding.

We played many other games. We would play stoop ball, throwing a ball against the steps of a stoop. You would get 1 point for catching the ball on the return in one bounce. You would get 5 points for catching a return ball on the fly. And you would get 10 points if you caught the ball on the fly after it hit the edge of any step. This was also known as a “pointer.” The Meades and Priors had the best steps in the neighborhood for stoop ball by far.

And there were many other activities. Simple games like hide-and-go-seek, red-light/green light, tag, ring-o-levio, and johnny-on-the-pony. We would also play touch football, during the fall and winter. If we wanted to play with hardballs, or play basketball, we would often walk to Smokey Park. The neighbors didn’t much like us hitting or throwing hardballs around the street where cars were parked. Rubber balls: ok. Hardballs, go to Smokey. On the rare occasions where we would play board games or play with our Marx Playsets, we would still be outside in someone’s yard for these activities. In summary, we were always active and playing outside. We were fortunate that we had a lack of TV programming and no video games that could have drawn us back into a sedentary life, in our homes. TV is another story…

Television, or Lack Thereof:  During the mid-50’s, most homes in Richmond Hill had only one TV. These TV’s were generally 25” black and white models made with cathode ray tubes that made them very heavy. The TV was prominently placed in the living room and the entire family watched TV together. Yes, together.  There was no cable and there were no remote controls. Well, the remote control was me: “son, can you change it to channel 2?” I was also the part-time TV engineer futzing with the TV antenna to get the best picture.

Programming was at best limited. We had all of 7 channels: WCBS (Ch2), WNBC (Ch4), WNEW (Ch5), WABC (Ch7), WOR (Ch9), WPIX (Ch11) and WNET (Ch13). The TV channel selector only had numbers 1 through 13, so I guess it was good we didn’t need more channels to select. And we were a CBS family. Brand loyalty reached ridiculous extremes in the 50's: everything we watched was on CBS. No questions asked and certainly no channel surfing. My dad liked CBS, so that’s what we watched, from the time of CBS World News with Walter Cronkite, until the last program finished at 11:00 PM. That’s when we shut the TV off and went to bed.

TV programming signed off every evening. Most channels would show their last programming around 2:00 AM. The channels would play the Star Spangled banner after the last transmission of the day, and then it would go to a test pattern. We called the test pattern CONELRAD. The only channel that broadcast later than 2:00 AM was CBS. They would put on a movie called “The Late Show” and follow that by another movie called “The Late, Late Show.” This last movie ended about 3:30 to 4:00 AM. After that, they signed off. Stations would come back on around 5:30 AM with inspirational shows for 30 minutes, followed by local news at 6:00 AM.

But we didn’t use the TV as background noise in those days either. Today, as I work at home, I’ll have the TV on but I am not really watching it. I use it as a background sound. But in the 50’s, we had radio and that’s pretty much all we had. Whereas TV’s were one per house, we each had radios in our rooms. The advent of transistors meant that we could even carry our entertainment with us. AM stations still ruled the airwaves: my choice was WMCA (The Good Guys) and WABC. Both played rock. And later on, I listened to FM, WPLJ. My favorite activity was listening to Yankees Baseball on radio, during a time when very few games were televised.

Many people have asked me why a guy from Queens is a Yankees fan. They assume I should be a Mets fan. My answer exposes my age. When my Dad took me to my first baseball game in 1960, it was to a Yankees game. At that time, the Yankees were the only major league baseball team in NY. The Giants had a left a year earlier to go to San Francisco. The Dodgers had been in LA for 3 years, and the Mets weren’t even around then. So, I became a Yankees fan with all that went with it, including everlasting admiration for Mickey Mantle, by default. When the Mets started playing in 1962 in the Polo Grounds, my Dad actually took me to one of their games. But it was too late: I had become a die-hard Yankees fan.

And the Telephone:   If TV seemed very primitive, the telephone was downright neanderthal. The telephone was another early technology in the 50’s that has seen significant change. I look back now at the archaic device we used for telephone calls and wonder how it ever worked. We only had 1 telephone in the house during the 50’s and early 60’s. It was a large, ugly black device with rotary dial and handset attached to receiver body with a flex chord. Then there was also a cord attaching the phone to a wall jack. In order to dial anyone, you put your finger in the rotary dial, moved the dial clockwise to the stop, released the dial, let it click-click-click back, and then you would put your finger in the hole for the next letter or number and repeat the process.

Fortunately, most numbers that we dialed had only 7 letters or numbers. It was back in the day, when areas were assigned location identifiers for phone exchanges. So a phone number would be Virginia 7-0327, or “VI-7-0327.” Don’t ask me why we had “Virginia” as a local phone exchange in the middle of Queens? And we never dialed area codes for outside of Queens or greater NYC. For any other calls outside of the NYC area, we would dial “O” for operator for these long-distance calls. I really miss the simplicity of this system: you called someone and either heard a ringing or a busy signal. You either were at home to answer a call, or you were not. There were no message devices for people to leave messages. No back up cell numbers, no call forwarding, no nothing. We were not tied to 24/7 global phone communications. It was so much better than.

The Typical House in Queens:   Houses in Richmond Hill were very similar to each other. Each house was usually on a 50 ft by 100 ft plot. Adding a driveway to the side of the house with a minimal backyard, houses were narrow and long. The floor pattern within each house was very similar. The driveway was a driveway in name only. The original builders had no idea of the size of 50’s and 60’s cars. The wide, long winged behemoths that we drove could rarely fit in a driveway between two houses. Fortunately, most homeowners had only one car. And that car would remain in the driveway at the front of the house, bordering the small front yard. Parking on the street was also an option, however, available parking on our street was minimal, given our distance to a main avenue and Lefferts Theater.

Since my dad never intended to use the garage in the backyard as a garage, he made it into recreation space. He called it his “NCO Club.” If you look at the slide show from this site, you will see many photos from Pop’s garage. It seemed that Mom and Pop always had a party going in my backyard. Relatives and friends were frequently visiting and partying in the NCO Club. I can’t remember going to many parties at my neighbor’s houses or other relative’s houses: they all seemed to congregate in my backyard and in the NCO Club.

My yard was typical for Queens, NY. One side had concrete which formed part of the driveway up to the garage. We had a double wide garage, intended for storage of two cars. The garage wall extended from one part of the property line 50 feet across to the other side of the property line. With a small attached shed on the right. The right side of the backyard had grass, Mom’s vegetable plot and a rock garden. It was small, yet functional: we always had fresh beefsteak tomatoes in the summer. What set our yard apart was a grape barber on a wooden trellis that overhung half of the backyard on the paved side. The vines produced the sweetest grapes that my mother magically transformed into grape jelly. It had the added benefit of providing shade on hot summer days.

We had the also had the benefit of a finished basement. We had a toilet in the basement which was a life-saver for a standard 1 bathroom house with 4 people. Since the basement had a walk-in entrance from the backyard, it was often used as the party annex. Pop had a separate bar in the basement, so there was a natural flow to our parties from the yard to the basement and back again. The basement bathroom was also extremely handy during parties. In cold weather, when we didn’t use the garage or yard, the basement became party central.

Noise was always a problem in Richmond Hill. I now live in upstate New York in a home with R21 insulation, energy saving windows, and central air. At night, it is now completely quiet and always comfortably cool. What a change from Richmond Hill. In Richmond Hill, we first had to contend with Idlewild Airport. (That’s what we called it before it was renamed Kennedy International.) We were in the flight pattern for most planes and the jet engine noise on some days was intense enough to vibrate the house. Really, the house vibrated.

And on hot days, all screen doors were left open and windows were left open. There were no secrets among neighbors. You could hear what was going on at the neighbor to your left and to your right. They could also hear you. Add to this cacophony, the movement of the elevated A train at the last stop at Lefferts Blvd. And you had the occasional siren from a police car or an ambulance. I don’t know now, how I ever slept through the night. I remember walking down the block on a summer evening, getting snippets from each neighbor from their daily life: sounds of cooking, dish cleaning, loud conversation and TV. Since we all seemed to watch CBS, you would pick up a broadcast by simply walking down the block. You would lose sound walking past a house and then pick up the broadcast again from the next house, all the way to your front door.

Who needs a car when you can walk?:   Most families were one car families. We really didn’t need more than one car. This was good since most families could only afford one car. And the parking situation pretty much prevented a second car for each family. We really didn’t need cars at all. We had everything we needed within walking distance. As far as I was concerned, our home location was ideal: ½ block from Liberty Ave. My childhood world was bounded by how far I could walk.

We lived on a 123rd St. If I wanted to go to the movie, I would walk a ½ block to Lefferts Theater. Admission cost 25 cents for a Saturday matinee. Inside, a hot dog and Coke cost 25 cents more. Between 123rd and 121st streets (there was no 122nd st at Liberty), was Pruser’s Soda Fountain. This was my ice cream store of choice for a quick sundae, milk shake or hamburger. I could venture a couple blocks more to Lefferts Blvd and go to Karps Soda Shop. There was a chinese restaurant a block away (The Yangtzee) and Neri’s Pizza on the corner of 124th. We frequently ordered food from both restaurants. And we had numerous bakeries and delis along Liberty Ave. Mom preferred Kron’s (or Krohn’s) German Bakery. There she would buy fresh sliced rye and pumpernickel bread, bagels and rolls. (Yes, that’s right:  we bought fresh loaves of bread, sliced at the bakery and made sandwiches with this bread.) And as I have mentioned before, my favorite place was Uncle Jack’s Toy Store on the corner of 124th and Liberty.

It seemed most of our relatives were within walking distance as well. When I grew up, my Mom was a career woman which was very unusual in the 50’s. Since both my parents worked, I would often walk to my aunt’s house after school and stay there on 124th street off of 97th Ave. My Aunt Rita watched over me along with her two sisters, Aunt Agnes and Aunt Francis. Once my parents returned home, I would walk back to my house on 123rd street. Just down the road from my aunts were my grandma and grandpa on the corner of 124th and Jerome Ave (also known as 101st Ave). I also had other aunts and cousins throughout the neighborhood and bordering neighborhoods. However, my Little Aunt Rita (named so to separate her from my other Aunt Rita) lived with her family on Long Island. Yes, all the way out on Long Island. That required a trip by car.

Sometimes, we did travel by car:   In fact, taking a car anywhere as a family meant that something was a big event. It wasn’t like today, where we jump in the car to do everything and to go everywhere. Heck, today people commute longer distances every day to get to work, much longer than the simple trip from Queens to Wyandanch to visit my Little Aunt Rita and Uncle Bill, and cousins Marianne and Cathy in the wilds of Long Island. No, the family taking a trip in a car, required intensive planning, just short of the planning required for D-Day. There were maps to study (no GPS), provisions to pack, preventative maintenance to be done and a trip plan to execute. No cell phones then: we were completely on our own. Like the pioneers.

That is not to say we didn’t take quick trips in the car for “special occasions.” I would call these local trips, due to the lack of preparation required for treks into the wilderness of Long Island or Upstate New York (and for real New Yorkers, “Upstate” was anything north of the Bronx). We would often go to Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor or the Triangle Hofbrau Restaurant for “special occasions.” And bi-weekly grocery trips to the A&P at 130th St and Liberty usually required a car. We really didn’t have malls back then (Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream wasn’t really a true mall until 1968), so for special shopping trips we would take the car to Gertz or Mays Department store. But apart from these infrequent local trips by car, we would walk where we needed to go or we took mass transit.

Walking while eating and vice-versa:   Walking had its obvious advantages in the form of a healthy lifestyle. And even though the neighborhood was extremely safe, walking had its own inherent perils. On my average walk to Lefferts Blvd, or walk to school, I would pass many candy stores, ice cream parlors, pizzerias and hot dog stands. Well there was only one hot dog cart between 123rd and Lefferts. A guy named Phil owned the Sabrett cart and usually camped out on 120th St and Liberty. He was there for many years until Congresmman Santucci got him a job as a court officer, or so the story goes. I can’t recall a walk to and from school, where I didn’t stop for candy, ice cream or soda. And It would be nothing for me to have a slice a pizza, ordered from a pizzeria sidewalk window counter, and eating the folded slice (as is the NY custom) walking back to 123rd st. And, I was still eating 3 solid meals a day. This, and the countless candies, ice creams, ices, hot dogs, White Castle burgers and other treats were just between meal snacks.

And if you didn’t want to walk for a snack, the snack would come to you in the form of Good Humor or the Mister Softee truck. All of us remember the loud Mr Softee jingle that echoed down each street. If you are feeling nostalgic, press here. As previously mentioned, I often stayed with Aunt Rita after school. When Mr Softee jingled in front of her house, both of us ran out to get our treat. Aunt Rita would always buy me a banana boat. She would watch her diet and only order a cone. However, this made her feel less guilty about her weight, since I shared my banana boat with her. We would both have this snack in late afternoon: then we would eat dinner (or not eat) shortly thereafter. And this was not an infrequent treat: it seems that every day Mr Softee came around, we would be loyal patrons. The driver often stopped and waited for us, knowing us both by name. Why I didn’t balloon up to 400 pounds before I left in 1971, is beyond me.

Yes, they loved to smoke and drink:   Talking about healthy lifestyles, our generation grew up with dietary and healthy living ignorance. And I mean ignorance in a good way. We had no studies about butter, or eggs, or red meat. No, we ate a lot of butter and drank whole milk. We had more than our fair share of eggs for breakfast. And we ate plenty of beef. It appears that most of us turned out alright even with our ignorance of diet. But what really sent our youth over the top as far as healthy living was concerned was smoking and drinking. This was the Mad Men era. Take a look at any movie or TV series about the 50’s and 60’s. Nearly all the adults smoked and drank alcohol, often to excess.

There were no Surgeon General warnings or studies about the damaging effects of smoking. No, none at all:  everyone smoked, everywhere. No one was concerned about second hand smoke at the time. People smoked at home or in the office. People smoked in cars, crowded subway trains and airplanes. People smoked in restaurants and movie houses. Our house was always full of the smell of cigarette tobacco. And Mom and Dad smoked the real deal: unfiltered Chesterfields. When you watched TV especially, you saw newscasters, interviewers, dramatic actors and pitchmen all smoking on air. I recall watching Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson smoking during interviews. Smoking was everywhere. This is one part of my childhood that I don’t miss, and I am glad that we progressed as a society to control and prohibit this addiction.

Then there was drinking. My parents were like other parents of that day. They enjoyed drinking and did it on a daily basis. Sometimes, they drank too much. However, this was no different from other parents in the neighborhood. The Hollywood Rat pack made their living from the celebration of drinking and flaunted this lifestyle within the media. And our parents accepted this norm and drank much more than we would drink today. Even the cops would accept this type of drinking. No one was arrested for DUI in the 50’s or 60’s. Cops just called a taxi and sent the drunk home.

There were many small bars that dotted our community. The bar that my father frequented was called Shannon's, on Liberty between 123rd and 121st. He would stop by there for a quick beer before dinner, and then come home. Other neighborhood men would also frequent this bar for a quick beer after work. This was the norm back in the 50’s and 60’s. Then, before dinner, Mom and Dad might have a cocktail, what they called a “high ball.” Then, we would have dinner, as a family. Yes, that’s right, we would all sit down as a family and eat dinner together. Most nights we would eat at the kitchen table in the nook behind the kitchen itself. For other special occasions, we would eat in the more formal dining room. Then Mom and Pop would light up post dinner and we would prepare for a night of watching TV, together.

There's always the bus or train:  I have always said that I am glad that I learned to drive in Queens. I learned both how to use a standard transmission and I drove in some of the worst traffic in the world. Still, another skill was even more important: how to use mass transit. The A Train ended at Lefferts Blvd and Liberty Ave. There was also a bus stop for a major Queens bus route at the same location (the Q10 north to Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike and south to South Conduit Road). So to get anywhere in the city, all I had to do was walk about 4 blocks to these 2 stops.

When I started taking the train, tokens were 15 cents. So for that sum, I could hop on the A Train and go directly to the American Museum of National History in the city. I look back now, and I can’t believe that in 7th grade, me and my friends would hop on a train, without any adult supervision, and have fun in the city. That’s 7th grade as in 12 years old. 12 years old! I know that this was something that I would never allow my own sons to do. But back in the early 60’s, my friends and I frequently hopped on a train or a bus to go someplace fun and exciting. We could also take the train to Rockaway Beach in the summer, by ourselves. Frankly, I don’t know how we survived some of those trips.

Mass transit became a necessity when I started high school in 1967. To get to Archbishop Molloy in Briarwood Queens, I would have to first walk to the Q10 Bus stop at Lefferts and Liberty. Then I would ride the bus to its last stop in Kew Gardens. From there, I’d hop on the E Train for 2 stops. Then I would walk about 3 more blocks to get to school. All told, with no major transit disruptions, it took one hour each way. And again, we had no city school buses and no moms driving us all to school. When my own sons attended Molloy nearly 30 years later, either me or my wife would drive our sons to Molloy and pick them up every day.

The 129th Street Years: When I joined Boy Scouts in 1964, I met a very good friend, Kevin Sullivan, who lived with his family on 129th Street, across from St Paul's Lutheran. As I went from 6th Grade through 8th Grade, I found myself spending more and more time on 129th St. That was a great block as well. Joe and Eileen Sullivan had 3 sons, Kevin, Brian and Sean. Eileen's sister, Joan Coppola, and her family lived right down the block with 2 younger sons, Matthew and James. Further down the street on Liberty, Kevin had two cousins, George and Danny, who lived in an upstairs apartment. And we had some friends, like Jimmy Relyea, who hung out with us.

Needless to say, this was a large Irish Catholic, and Italian Catholic family, who truly enjoyed each others company and celebrated every holiday together with a giant party. We would be joined by Kevin's Aunt Dot and Uncle Robby and there would always be a full house with a fair amount of alcohol and a whole lot of fun. I was very fortunate that the Sullivans took me in as one of their own. I always felt welcome there and among their extended family. Since I came from a fairly small family, I was blessed to be part of an extended family who truly embraced life and truly enjoyed each others company. I will always remember and be thankful for the party that the Sullivans hosted for me (along with Boys Scout Troop 273) when I graduated from West Point in 1975. I have added pictures from this event in the slide show. I will always be appreciative to the Sullivan family and their friends who took such good care of me over so many years when I lived in Richmond Hill. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan and the extended Sullivan clan!

The 60's: a revolution in Many Ways:   When I look back on American generations, I feel that I was part of one of the most fortunate generations. Considering technology alone, we have come so far in my generation. From those 7 channel black and white TVs, to Smart TVs with 300 station cable and lightweight 60” LED screens. We have gone from slide rules (we had no calculators yet in grammar school or high school) to smart phones, notepads and tablets that are more capable than anything shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We went from snail mail with no Zip Codes, to instantaneous global text, voice and video communications.

Culturally, the baby boom enjoyed the best of times. We were there at the advent of the Silver age of comics. The first comic that I bought was Amazing Spiderman #1 for 12 cents at the local candy store. I have built a large comic collection ever since then. We collected baseball cards when they were 5 cents a pack and eagerly sought our heroes: Mantle, Maris and Mays. And you got a piece of gum with each pack! We played with toys that were real toys, produced during the Golden Age of Marx. We had the 12 inch GI Joes, not the 3 1/2" variety of later years. We were there for the British Invasion and the birth of hard rock. We saw the birth (and sometimes death) of greats like the Stones, Hendrix, Clapton, The Who and Led Zeppelin. We were there for the revolution in movies and TV as well.

One day in 1967, my friend Pete Holowczyk asked me to go the movies with him. It was a new western and would cost 50 cents. At first I protested, but he said that if I didn’t like it he would pay for my movie. He tried to entice me: “yeah, the star is the guy who played Rowdy in the “Rawhide” series.” That really wasn’t a big sell for me. However, Petey was pretty smart about these things so I trusted his judgment. But truth be told, I was tired of the classic American western. Many other people were also feeling the same way. So I begrudgingly went to the movie: it was called Fistful of Dollars, starring a then unknown movie actor, Clint Eastwood.

My view of a western changed immediately after watching the first scenes of the movie. I was simply blown away by the realism. These cowboys were sweating, unshaven and were dirty. They looked like they hadn’t showered in weeks. You could almost smell them from the screen. This was such a drastic departure from the Bonanza and Roy Rogers world of pressed, brightly colored clothes, of clean shaven men, who never seem to get dirty. The violence in this film also was a slap in the face. The gunshots sounded real: when people were shot, their chests and heads exploded in blood. This never happened before in movies and TV. At the end of the movie, I paid Petey for his admission and even paid for his popcorn. The movie signaled a paradigm shift in culture. But it also reflected a change in my own world, as Richmond Hill grew out of its 50’s innocence into the grim reality of the late 60’s. The world was certainly changing.

Every facet of life seemed to experience major change, really upheaval and turmoil, in the late 60’s. My idol, Mickey Mantle, retired on Mar 1, 1969. It was the end of the era for old-time, NY baseball. As if to signal the death of old-time baseball completely, MLB split up the American League into East and West divisions at the start of 1969. What? Are you kidding me? Now, there would be a conference championship to determine who plays in the World Series. As I look back, younger generations will never understand the depths of desperation felt by fans of one 10-team American League in a winner-take-all scenario. It was so much simpler back then: you win the AL, you play in the World Series. That’s it! Done. For the other nine teams: see you next year.

A very special time and place:   As I look back now, I strongly feel that my parents enjoyed true happiness in Richmond Hill. Even though they worked harder than me, they earned far less than me, and they had many more problems than me, I know that they were far happier than me, they truly knew how to enjoy life. It's not that I am unhappy: I am very satisfied about who I am, where I am in life and what I have attained. God has blessed me and my family. Still, I have never experienced such a strong sense of happiness and community between neighbors, friends and relatives that I experienced in my youth on 123rd Street in Richmond Hill. Maybe in some places, this magical combination still exists. But I haven't seen it.

The Long Goodbye:  When I entered West Point in 1971, I was pretty much moved out of my home. When I graduated in 1975, I was stationed in Ft Belvoir, Virginia, and I didn’t make many trips back to Richmond Hill. Then I was stationed in Germany, and made no visits back to Richmond Hill. The last time that I saw my old home was in 1987, when my parents prepared to move to Long Island. Mom called and asked me to come down and pick up some things before they moved. She added, “you may want to rent a trailer.”

I went back to the house, and to my surprise, Mom and Pop had pretty much saved everything I owned from my childhood. I always heard from friends the old lament: “I had comics, but my Mom threw them out.” Or, “I had a card collection, but Mom threw them out.” In my case, my Mom saved everything: comics, cards, books, toys, old clothes, scout uniforms, cadet uniforms, you name it, and she kept it. So, by the end of the day, the trailer was chock full and we said our last goodbye to our house in Richmond Hill.

During my last visit in 1987, I noticed how much Richmond Hill had changed. Pop had put iron bars on all the windows and the front and back storm doors were now the heavy steel security type. No more leaving doors and windows unlocked. There was a lot more traffic than I ever remembered. And it seemed that all the large majestic maple and oak trees were gone? Don’t know where they went, but they were gone. The trees went the way of many of our old neighbors who had already picked up and left. It was a much different and unwelcoming neighborhood. I was very saddened by this and I have not returned to my Richmond Hill home since 1987.

They say "You can't go home again." That is partly wrong. If you never leave home, there’s little question or problem about having to go back. As I look back to 1971, when I left Richmond Hill, I find that part of me never really left. There is a part of my heart and soul that still lives in the Richmond Hill, NY of the 50's and 60's, a place we called home.

I have many more memories from my youth in Richmond Hill. I will jot them down separately in chapters covering my Catholic School education at SBJL and my time with the scouts in Troop 273. School and Scouts made up a large part of my upbringing and development and both were firmly anchored in the fond remembrances of Richmond Hill.

Please send me your Richmond Hill stories and your photos! I will add to this website and give credit for your contribution. Please email to gerardh629@aol.com. Thanks!