Author Archives: will

P.S. 214 in the Early 1930s, NYU in 1943: My two “D” Grades

1931: My first day in the first grade of P.S. 214 began with me being escorted there by Dad. We walked the four blocks to school and Dad left me sitting on a bench in the first floor basement and then went on to work. I was very early and the first student to arrive. After about 15 minutes of nervous anticipation, others began to show up and I discovered that students were to line up outside in the schoolyard. I joined the crowd of first graders there and waited with a great deal of apprehension for my schooling to begin.

How to evaluate my eight years of schooling at P.S. 214?

I have the feeling that it was a positive learning experience. But then there was Mrs. Norris.

She was our second grade teacher and a very busy person. She distributed the penny milk to those kids who ate lunch in her classroom, presided over the detention room and offered various programs of arts and crafts for different grade levels. I can remember bringing a bar of Ivory Soap to her class and trying unsuccessfully over a period of weeks to carve it into the shape of the Empire State Building.

And then there was her sewing class…

The challenge was to make a pink pillow in the shape of a pig. Mrs. Norris handed out all the necessary supplies such as scissors, the pattern to cut the cloth, the cotton for the stuffing and the needle and thread to sew the two sides of the pig together. All went well until the time came for me to stitch the pig’s sides together. A large knot had developed in my thread and I couldn’t untie it so I could not proceed with my sewing.

Mrs. Norris’ system for helping students with problems was to have the unlucky ones come up to her desk by rows. Since we were seated alphabetically, “H” put me in the second seat of the fourth of six rows. Sometimes the busy Mrs. Norris would start with the first row and ask if they needed help. Once in a while she’d start from the sixth row. There I was seated in the middle and she never got to my row one way or the other. Whenever I raised my hand and asked for help she would tell me that I would have to wait my turn. The class met once a week for six weeks and when we handed in our pigs for grading, Mrs. Morris wanted to know why I had not asked for help. I told her she had never gotten to my row and she gave me a D in sewing.

The dreaded Grade D monster raised its head one more time. And that was for a class in Integral Calculus I was taking at NYU the summer of 1943. Wayne Umland and I were both taking the course and he asked if I would tutor him daily at lunchtime just before the class went into session because he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. So each day we’d pick a nice bench in Washington Square Park and review the upcoming lesson. Seemed to work pretty well and Wayne was catching on. Just how well is the knot of the story. Our grades were based on a single test at the end of the semester and the grade on the test was the grade for the course. My student came up with a B. His tutor – er, me – screwed up the test and I got the second D of my scholastic lifetime.

There were other incidents along the way at P.S. 214 that come to mind that have nothing to do with the quality of the teaching, but reflect upon the by-play experienced by most school kids. First of all, I was a good student and didn’t horse around like the other guys when the teacher was out of the room. Among others, this got Robbie Naylor mad at me and every chance he got he’d play the bully – step on my foot or body-bunk me – just looking to get a rise out of me. The fact that I was I was one of the smallest guys in the class increased his bravado.

Finally, one day, to his complete surprise, I whacked him back and then heard the dreaded words shouted for all in the hallway to hear, “Meetcha outside in the schoolyard at three o’clock.” My heart sank. I had never fought anybody. The word quickly spread that Hoppe and Naylor were going to fight. An interested crowd gathered, but was disappointed when nothing much happened other than some aimless sparring. Naylor was needled by the crowd as I turned away and started my walk home down Forbell Avenue. He ran up to challenge me again and took a poke at me. Fired by an adrenalin rush, I ran at him, tackled him and got on top ready to get more than even when Naylor yelled out, “Not fair. Not fair. We’re supposed to box, not wrestle.” I didn’t know that there were rules we were supposed to be fighting by, so I let him up out of some misguided sense of fairness. We started boxing, but again I wrestled him down to the ground, sat on him and in a fury demanded he say, “Uncle,” which he did much to my surprise and I let him up again. The only fight I ever had in school was over and I had humbled my opponent in front of about 40 classmates. Felice Kaplan and Mildred Fahrent walked with me as far as Liberty Avenue. What a wonderful feeling!

College (NYU 1946) and Career

I was certainly disappointed when Lafayette College did not accept me as a transfer student. I soon learned their policy was widespread, since all of the colleges were bursting at the seams because of the GI Bill. I could have enrolled as a freshman by dropping the credits I had earned at NYU during the summer of ’43, but I was in a hurry and not really sure I wanted to be an engineer. (Sour grapes?) I felt that enough time had been lost by my service in the Army. I wanted to get a degree as quickly as possible and get on with my life.

Army service qualified me for all of the goodies in the G. I. Bill and what a bonanza it was! As I look back at that package, it amazes me that anything so generous could get through the Congress. Tuition and books were completely paid for and, in addition, I received $65 monthly in “subsistence.” That was later increased to $75. And in the months before I started school in the Fall of ’46, I qualified for unemployment insurance known as the 52-20 Club; it was part of the GI Bill. Veterans without a job I could sign up to receive $20 a week for a maximum of 52 weeks. I managed to collect the full amount by the time I graduated. The money came in very handy during the Summer months when I was not attending school and therefore was not getting the $65 monthly subsistence. Translate all of that into 2003 dollars and the amount of money boggles the mind.

The financial aid I received made it very comfortable for me to live at home and commute via subway (five-cent fare each way) to the Washington Square College of Arts and Sciences, especially since Mom and Dad did not charge room and board. The big decision still confronting me was what courses to take. I ended up choosing a major in Journalism and minors in History and English.

Why Journalism? I still wonder. Part of the answer, silly as it may sound, is that when in high school I had seen the Broadway production of “Front Page” and thought the reporter in the play was the greatest. Worldly wise, fedora tilted back, cigarette dangling from his mouth, working at his typewriter in shirtsleeves, punctuated by dramatic shouts in the newsroom of “Stop the presses” and “Copy boy!” What an exciting job that appeared to be! However, in light of the fact that I really had no particular career preference, Dad and I after much discussion decided that a liberal arts education would be of great benefit and Journalism courses would serve to sharpen my writing skills, an important capability no matter what direction my career took.

Written 27 December 2002 – 18 January 2003

Whoopee Cotton Ears, the Listener

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.

Rockaway Park Summer beginnings

It all began with a week long vacation at The White House which faced the ocean and was located on the boardwalk between 110th and 109th streets in Rockaway Park. We occupied a very small room that had kitchen privileges, which meant two stoves and an icebox were to be shared by the residents occupying one of the six rooms on the second floor. Mom and Dad slept in a double bed and were separated from Claire and me by a floor-to-ceiling hanging curtain.There was a small sink in the room and a small size table and chairs.. Not only was the kitchen down the hall, but the toilet was as well. There was always a lineup for both facilities. Also available were outdoor lockers for changing and outdoor showers, complete with cold running water.

Our "room" at The White House in Rockaway, 1938. Helen & Ted Hinck; Uncle Charly & Cousin Bobby Hoppe; "Aunt" Mabel, Joyce & Muriel Trotte; G'pa + G'ma Hoppe; Mom, Dad, Claire + Will.

Our “room” at The White House in Rockaway, 1938. Helen & Ted Hinck; Uncle Charly & Cousin Bobby Hoppe; “Aunt” Mabel, Joyce & Muriel Trotte; G’pa + G’ma Hoppe; Mom, Dad, Claire + Will.

Apparently, our one week experiment in beachfront living was a success because the following year Mom and Dad signed up for a one month stay in the height of the summer in a room that was on the first floor closer to the communal kitchen and toilet.

I’ve often wondered what kind of vacation Mom had in Rockaway. She still had to cook and clean, keep tabs on her two kids, and do the wash, though we lived in our bathing suits practically around the clock.

Our stays on the beach were a signal that our summer-long vacations at Grandma Hoppe’s house in Roxburg, NJ were over. No longer would Dad be driving there on Fridays after work in Manhattan to spend the weekend and then drive back on Monday morning. One benefit of this arrangement was that he got a lot of golf in during the midweek at the nearby Forest Park course and was able to improve his game considerably.

After Mom and Dad got the Rockaway sand in their shoes, they were more and more committed to vacationing at the beach, though they continued to search for alternatives to Roxburg. One summer we stayed at Lake Osiris in upstate New York with the Trotte family. In another year it was a bungalow in Rockaway Point. But the call of the White House and the lifestyle that went with it was too strong to ignore.

There were eight premium rooms and each had a porch facing the boardwalk and ocean. We contracted for one of them for eight weeks and promptly found that we had neighbors who were very sociable and loved to party. Lil and Harry Kamps and the Lanzillos came to be Mom and Dad’s year ’round friends.

Dogball at Rockaway Beach

Ratchet back in time to the summer of 1938 and be in Rockaway Beach at the corner of 110th Street and the Boardwalk. It is late afternoon and most of the serious sunbathers were lugging their beach umbrellas, blankets and ice chests across the still-hot sand to get back to their summer bungalow on one of the side streets that dead-ended along the many miles of the Boardwalk at the ocean front.

Me at age 16, Rockaway Beach, 1941

Me at age 16, Rockaway Beach, 1941

About 6:00 PM even before the Beach was empty, the ball players were arriving. They are equipped with softball bats and a hard solid rubber ball, the kind Woolworth’s 5&10 sold to dog owners to use to play “fetch.” As the Beach emptied, the four bases and pitcher’s mound were put in place at regulation softball game distances. They were simply small pillow cases filled with sand.

Choosing up sides was quickly accomplished since the game was an every-night affair and who played where was an automatic. Since some of the players had been turning out for the game for as many years as their family had been vacationing at the beach, in some cases for thirty years or more. After the regulars had filled all the positions on both teams, there were occasionaly vacancies that had to be filled. Onlooker-fans were always hanging around hoping to get to play ball that evening.

John Donahue, a ruddy-faced Irishman father of five girls and long-time Rockaway vacationer staying at a small bungalow in Mae Court at 109th Street and his summertime neighbor, Eddie McGowan, who lived next door were usually the first to be called since they had been playing dogball for at least 30 years. Now about 70 years old, they began competing on ball fields in a baseball league for teenagers sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. Since they could no longer run to first base in the sand after batting, that led to the creation of some local rules. For one, those players who could still swing a bat but were no longer able to run in the sand could call upon any onlooker to be a one-time substitute runner. This was a slow-pitch game and balls and strikes were not called. A batter could choose his pitch and was allowed one strike or two foul balls and he was out.

Playing the sandy infield was a real challenge to the players’ fielding ability. A hot ground ball would take an erratic hop or two and die while a slow-moving base runner made his way. On the nights when the tide was high, the left and center fielders would have to back up to the shoreline. Those dogballs flew when the batter really connected with his softball bat. The game would continue until the street lights on the boardwalk went on. Then they’d finish the inning.

More to come as Robert Moses takes time out from his many duties to see that his park police arrested all of the players and brought them to night court. The judge was sympathetic, feeling that no real crime had been committed. However, the die was cast and every night Mr. Moses henchmen in the person of the Park Police regularly toured the beach and hassled the ballplayers. No ball playing on the beach. Since no one wanted to get arrested for playing ball, the game was over… and John Donahue and Eddie McGowan retired to Fitzgerald’s bar on 108th Street. The lights were on and the game was over.