How is it that almost all of the experiences felt during eight years of elementary school can disappear? There are random occurrences that come to mind, mostly positive stuff, but nothing which can now be interpreted as character forming. It may be that our ego only allows the good stuff to filter through. Elementary school must have been an exciting time and I remember so little of it.
Teacher Mrs. Boyle discovered in the first few days of the term that I had no difficulty in reading aloud. So, for whatever reason, I was sent to the Ungraded Class with a book to read for the kids there that had learning disabilities. In the selection I was asked to read there was one word that threw me – science – which I pronounced “skee-ence.” Apparently, Mom and Dad had more than prepared me for school by making lots of books available and spending a lot of time reading with me. I still remember my feelings of disappointment, however, whenever I got a book for Christmas instead of a toy.
Music Appreciation turned out to be a lot of fun in an unexpected way. The project taken on by my seventh grade class was the production of an operetta. The star of the show was to be Anna Chieffo who had a wonderful soprano voice. We rehearsed on Thursdays in addition to our regular weekly class. It is significant to note at this time that the year previous in Music Appreciation my voice had been individually evaluated and found wanting. I was neither tenor nor bass nor anything else for that matter.
The teacher had played a song on the piano and, after hearing me sing in accompaniment, relegated me to the “listener” category. I was to listen, not sing during music class. There were two of us. How embarrassing!
However, when casting parts for the operetta, through some memory lapse on part of our teacher, my listener friend Rocco Scaminocci and I were the entire tenor section. There was a large contingent of sopranos seated just in front of us doing a lot of giggling. They had been hearing us croak out our tenor part. Perhaps out of sympathy, two of the girls always sang our part instead of their soprano part. They did so well that at an early rehearsal the teacher stopped the music and asked the tenors to stand. Fearful of being reprimanded, the girls didn’t, but Rocco and I had to – and we did so with heads hung low. Much to our surprise, she congratulated us for singing the tenor part so well, said we had auditioned successfully and would be in the chorus of the operetta. Not exactly how it would have worked out in a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie. My only other experience in showbiz came several years later when I had three lines in a health food play and wore an orange tie to let the audience know that I was a carrot.
After school let out at 3 o’clock Forbell Avenue was always a hotbed of activity. It was just one big playground for the kids on the block. There was hardly any traffic and few cars parked on the street. At times, a car’s fender did serve as first or third base. Second base was never a problem because it was always the sewer in the middle of the street.
Team games played were roller hockey, punchball, tag football, stickball, boxball and stoopball. I remember being perched on the curb hoping to get a chance to play as Robbie Carbonaro and Seymour Levine, the two oldest guys on the block, chose up sides. If I didn’t get picked, I waited around in the hope that someone’s mother would call him in and I would be asked to fill in the resulting empty spot. I knew I was doing OK when I began to be the first little kid picked. Later on, I knew I had really arrived when I got to do the choosing. The Forbell Street pecking order was established by how good you were in playing these street games. And you were told how good you were by how soon you were picked.. Unlike nowadays, there were no parents on the sidelines making sure that everyone got a chance to play. Except Mrs. O’Malley. Bubbie O’Malley, for example, just couldn’t catch and only got to play when his brother Sonny picked him for his team because his mother told him to.
When Mom called me in for supper that was the end of the afternoon’s games. Her call out the front window was, “Will-burr. Supp-urr.” No one else called me Wilbur. My street name was “Whoopee.” It came from the popular 1928 Eddie Cantor musical of the same name. Mom told me that the kids on the block called me that because I would run up and down the street yelling “Whoopee.” And it stuck.
Jack Pirrung lived around the corner on McKinley Ave. We were drafted into the army at the same time and assigned to H&S Co. of the 286th Engineer Battalion. He continued to call me “Whoopee” or “Whoop” and so did everyone else I knew in the army after a few days. “Whoop” was a nickname derived from my nickname. Even today army buddies Bob McKean and Vern Whritenour use my Forbell Avenue nickname.
And then there’s “Cotton Ears.” That was my nickname during a game of hide-and-seek the first summer we vacationed at The White House in Rockaway Beach. I was thirteen. About a dozen kids were in the game and because it was early in the season no one knew everyone’s name. I hid in one of the outdoor lockers, apparently not very well. The girl who was “it” saw me and called “tap-tap, er, Cotton Ears.” I was caught and nicknamed in one brief moment. And all because I had had an earache and Mom had put cotton in my ears. I was called “Cotton” or “Cotton Ears” all during our many years of vacation in Rockaway.
It was as “Cotton” that I played 3-man basketball at the 109th St. ocean playground just off the boardwalk. The quality of the competition was high. A lot of high school and college players who were friends of Al and Dick McGuire showed up to play. We had a lot of fun and got to know each other well.
Now fast-forward through the years to 1980 and a New York Times sales meeting I was attending in the WQXR auditorium on 43rd St. The guest speaker was the aforementioned Al McGuire who, in addition to coaching at Marquette University, was picking up a few extra bucks as a motivational speaker to sales organizations. After the meeting when Al was being escorted to a waiting limo by N. Y. Times top brass, I went over to say hello. Before I could say anything, he shouted, “Cotton Ears – how are you?” We had a brief chat about Rockaway. Later in the day I had to explain to a curious N.Y. Times exec, Jack Guerin, who was witness to our exchange, just how I got that outlandish nickname.