The Rockaway Boys and Maggie
By Don Kellin
It was an orderly mess back then, not anything like what’s going on now. The world was divided into good guys, bad guys, those who sat in the stands rooting for one side or the other and the jerks with their heads in the sand making believe the World War II inferno was on another planet. By the end of 1942, the heat from that inferno was being felt from the Arctic to the Antarctic (talk about global warming).
Donny Becker started wanting things his way while still tethered to his loving mother, Esther. The other moms-in-the-making would touch each other’s bellies to feel their babies kicking, but Esther Becker wouldn’t let them touch hers for fear her unborn baby might fracture a friend’s finger. Donny stopped doing the conga just as he slid out of her, feet first, into Doctor Herschkowitz’s latex-covered palms, May 16th, 1929, three weeks premature, hell-bent on dining alfresco.
“He wanted out,” the much relieved Esther Becker announced to all who would listen.
”My ‘tatella,’, Donald, wanted out, feet first, three weeks before my due date, and he got his way.”
After he was launched, Esther’s tatella needed something to occupy his every minute or he would scream until the china vibrated in the family breakfront. That heirloom had finagled its way through generations in Russia, the lower Eastside, Harlem, until finally settling opposite their dining room table in what was half of the tshatshke-challenged Becker living room in apartment 2C of 3220 Steuben Avenue in the Bronx. The space between the dining room chairs and the breakfront was so narrow, no one except Donny's two-dimensional sliver of an aunt, Ceil Becker, could sit there, as if she were wallpapered against the remarkably uncomfortable straight-backed dining room chair.
Donny liked to chew on Esther’s nipple even when he wasn’t hungry, and when her sore nipples were on the lam, he’d want the mobile, not to look at, but to take apart. As Donny cajoled his way into his teens, he still had to be occupied almost every minute of every day and most of every middle of every night. While his neighbors escaped into slumber, his genes impelled him to cling to a few more hours of the precious twenty-four. From conception, needless to say, Donny Becker possessed an innate need for stimulation.
The summer of 1943 had been like all the others since the war began -– not quite fun. War or no war, a few days after school ended every June, Donny was one of the thousands of Jewish kids who rode the tsunami of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts escaping the stifling New York City tenements to the shore at Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York. Like the Canadian geese and Monarch butterflies whose genes dictated their yearly migration, their Jewish genes insisted they migrate to the cooler coast, to their rented bungalows and the soothing scent and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean, before the neighborhood pavement back home became a griddle.
Since the war started, neatly folded miniature flags, layered between bathing suits and towels, accompanied the tenement geese on their migration. The flags summered at the coast in bungalow windows. Each had a red border defining a white perpendicular rectangle that had one or more stars in it. A blue star indicated a loved one was serving his or her country. A gold star meant that the life of a loved one had evaporated -- and the lives of those staring out the window had changed forever. During the summer of ’42, the summer Donny met Maggie, the tenement geese weren’t the only ones making their way to the coast. Nazi U-Boats were doing the same coming from the opposite direction across the Atlantic moving toward the silhouettes of troop and cargo ships backlit by the glow of Manhattan at night. Millions of tons of U.S. ships and war supplies destined for England had been torpedoed and sunk along with the futures of many onboard.
Two of those U-Boats had orders to launch more than torpedoes. On June 1st, four trained German saboteurs were dropped off a mile or so off the beach at Amagansett, Long Island, New York. A few weeks later, four more landed on the beach at Ponte Vedra Beach, south of Jacksonville, Florida. Their collapsible rubber boats contained clothing, explosives and thousands of dollars in cash. Maps and well-laid out plans to destroy railways, bridges, water works and war plants were recovered from each. J. Edgar Hoover proudly announced the capture of the saboteurs and their failed mission. But, although the country was spared physical damage, the psyche of the east coast and the nation wasn’t. The war was no longer somewhere out there over the horizon being fought by loved ones. The beaches of the east coast were no longer just a summer paradise. They were a line of defense the entire country depended on.
The Rockaway bungalows were a bargain. Nestled along the narrow streets that led to the boardwalk and the beach, steeped in the scent of aging wood, damp sand and salt, the modest, mildewed clapboard boxes dotted this once carefree mini-world that lay far from the teeming garment center, flights of tenement stairs, the roar of elevated trains, the rumble of subways under foot -– but not far enough away from the war.
For four of the last five years, Donny’s mom and dad, Esther and Sam Becker, and his brother, Eddie, shared a bungalow with Lou and Hanna Gold and their daughter, Lisa.
Every summer Sam would exclaim, “Over ninety days and nights for three hundred dollars -- three bucks a day! What else is such a good deal?”
“Having your own store, Sam,” Lou would respond, jealous of those ‘geese’ who could afford their own bungalows paid for with skimmed cash from their store’s tills. “Cash is king,” Sam and Lou would chant in unison before they downed their ration of Slivovitz.
The three-hundred dollars would buy each family one bedroom for the parents, one for the kids (no matter how many), a shared kitchen and enough nooks and crannies from which the unseen Donny and Eddie could observe Lisa Gold’s high-wire act as she wobbled on her mother’s stilts from the kitchen at the rear of the bungalow to the porch where she stood, balancing, and looked out over the Twenty-Ninth Street ramp to the boardwalk at the humongous asphalt parking lot/softball field whose right and left field fences were deep enough to contain all but legitimate homeruns. A few minutes after sun up, every Saturday and Sunday morning, Lisa would run up to the boardwalk to Jerry’s Knishes, buy a cherry cheese knish right out of the oven, then hurry down the boardwalk ramp flipping the scalding wax papered-covered treasure from one hand to the other. Then she would take her place on the bungalow porch rail and nurse the treat while taking in the athletic prowess and physiques of the few young, tanned softball players permitted to play with the older, chubbier, hairier, paler, sweatier ‘pros’ -- that is until a car parked at home plate.
During the four years the Beckers and Golds shared the bungalow, Lisa had transformed from an amorphous, almost invisible thirteen-year-old to a bona fide distraction. Both Lisa and Rita Hayworth were born in Brooklyn. Eddie had started to notice that Lisa and Rita now shared some far more interesting features, and he pointed them out to his transfixed brother.
Mr. Okun, master salesman at Barney’s Boy’s Town, had used the word while fitting Donny for his Bar Mitzvah suit pants.
“Young man, how does it feel in the crotch?” Okun asked as he pointed down there. Donny had answered, “Okay, I guess.” Had Okun asked the question while Donny was gazing at Lisa’s new ‘features,’ Donny would have mumbled, “Sort of funny.”
This was the summer Eddie had intended to grace Lisa with his attention. But a month before Rockaway, while coiled at the home plate painted on P.S. 80’s concrete diamond, he turned in the direction the pitcher was gesturing and saw the ashen Esther Becker, one white-knuckled hand grasping the chain link, the other, what looked like a letter. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. Eddie struck out for the first time in memory.
Donny often reached across the two-foot span that separated his cot from Eddie’s to make sure he was still there in the darkness. That night, the day the letter from the draft board came, Donny opened his eyes and saw Eddie sitting at the edge of his cot, a flashlight in one hand, the letter in the other.
“What does it say?” asked Donny. Eddie read with his interpretation: “’Dear Eddie, things are tougher than we thought. We need you to win the war. Get over here as fast as you can.’ And it’s signed by President Roosevelt himself.”
Eddie stared at Donny for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.” He turned off the flashlight. There was no “Goodnight, kid,” no sounds of compressed springs or the rustle of sheets. Donny, propped on his elbow, stared into the dark knowing his brother was still sitting there, letter in hand.
Within ten weeks, Eddie passed the Army induction physical, finished eight weeks of basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was one of the two thousand wide-eyed khaki-clad passengers on the Santa Paula, a troop ship headed somewhere east. Eddie’s departure left a crater in the Becker family, a persistent anxious moment, a skipped heartbeat that stayed skipped.
The Golds always went home the Tuesday after Labor Day along with ninety-nine percent of the tenement geese. And while they were back in the city making the adjustment from escape to reality, the Beckers had clung to the ‘escape’ for five more days until late on the Sunday before Public School 80 and De Witt Clinton High School opened their thickly- painted brown doors to vacuum up their bleary-eyed, bronzed students. Year after year, during that magical Wednesday to Sunday, Donny and Eddie each had their own bedroom -- except for this year. One bedroom was unoccupied. Eddie, like hundreds of other boy-men who had rarely traveled more than a few subway stops from home, was thousands of miles away fighting a war. This first summer that Eddie and Donny were separated, while Lisa, Lou and Hanna Gold -- and all the others not working the night shift or gazing at the ceiling worrying about a loved one -- slept, Donny, lying in his secret space tucked under the bed covers, bathed in the dial’s glow from his new amber-colored Bakelite Crosley 517 Fiver Radio, searched for news about the war. The ‘Fiver’ was quite an improvement over the four-year-old crystal radio set Donny had built from a kit he received as a Chanukah present from Uncle Joe and Aunt Ceil last year. Unaware it was now obsolete, the crystal set awaited Donny’s return from Rockaway. It lay where it was left, across a few button depressions on his striped cot mattress, aerial and ground wire trailing between the mattress and wall to the steam radiator where the ground ended, wrapped around the valve. The aerial wire continued up over the radiator top where it often passed an aromatic apple or two slow-baking through a winter night in a syrup-stained tin before it snaked under the window, painted stiff, an eighth of an inch from the sill, then dangled for three stories between old tenement brick and the black Bronx night. The abandoned crystal set had been a conduit to places forever etched in Donny’s imagination. Every night for almost a year, while Sam was snoring, Esther was knitting and Eddie was papering another model Spitfire or was out with his buddies at Jim’s Pizza, Donny lay on his pillow, his earphones on, crystal set on his chest. Gazing out his almost-closed window at the black sky and stars, he had been transported from the four walls of his eight by eight bedroom to the music of swinging orchestras, the sounds of tinkling glasses and the buzz and applause of dancers levitating over current events atop elegant rooftop ballrooms of regally named hotels.
Before leaving for school one September morning in 1940, while moving the crystal set’s diode along the copper coil, Donny heard someone named Edward R. Murrow talking about more distant rooftops:
"Tonight, as on every other night, the rooftop watchers are peering out across the fantastic forest of London's chimney pots. The anti-aircraft gunners stand ready.
"I have been walking tonight -- there is a full moon, and the dirty-gray buildings appear white. The stars, the empty windows, are hidden. It's a beautiful and lonesome city where men and women and children are trying to snatch a few hours sleep underground."
There was no music playing from those rooftops. For months, Donny’s private world, once filled with images of fictional superheroes and villains, and ballrooms swaying to the sounds of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, was usurped by London’s wail, the bark of the ack ack batteries and explosions that made his earphones vibrate. It lasted until the diameter of his yawns and the dark half-moons under his eyes gave him away. Then Esther had made sure the earphones disappeared along with Donny’s ride to his secret world.
While the war raged on three continents, fatigue had bullied Donny to sleep, until Eddie was catapulted across the Atlantic. From that day on, up-to-the-minute information about the war was as necessary as food and Yohoos.
Puggy Friedman, 16, Mosholu Parkway’s devious war profiteer, knew he finally had Donny Becker, a source of envy and other debilitating emotions, where he wanted him. He nixed Donny’s offer of a shiny new quarter and a half-full jar of Glovoleum. Puggy placed his hand holding the extra pair of earphones on his hip, extended his other, pointing to Donny’s pocket, then, palm up, his fingers gestured for more. Donny hesitated, then reached into his pocket and produced the legendary chestnut that had survived more battles in the Bronx than any other that had fallen from Van Courtland Park’s grove of majestic American Chestnut trees. Dangling from bakery string, it showed little evidence that during its regal two-year reign, it had survived the onslaught of every kid in the neighborhood who had approached each attempt to break it with their swinging chestnut with faux confidence that would erode after each unsuccessful strike would take bits, then pieces, then the rest of their doomed chestnut until it would fall to the pavement leaving the moist knot at the end of the string dangling in defeat. At least, Donny thought to himself, this opportunistic bastard, Friedman, forgot to demand the recipe for the secret liquid and storage technique that converted his soft chestnuts into concrete wrecking balls.
Donny handed the regal chestnut to Puggy who then tilted his head, and extended his hand again pointing to Donny’s pocket. No shopkeeper or anyone else for that matter could explain why the war effort created a shortage of bubble gum. One thing for sure -- soldiers weren’t getting any. They weren’t blowing big pink bubbles as they fought their way through the jungles of the Pacific or onto the shores of Italy to save the world from demons.
“It’s the only piece I have,” reacted Donny knowing trading this hidden treasure away meant he would have to rely on abandoned, re-chewed, jaw-fatiguing, rock-hard Dubble Bubble pieces resting at the bottom of the jar of sugar-water on his bureau. Puggy shrugged he couldn’t care less. It was a rare moment when Donny didn’t have an edge, and his heart wasn’t prepared. It seemed to be beating outside his chest. He finally reached into his pocket and produced a fresh-wrapped piece of Fleer’s Dubble Bubble and handed it to the war profiteer.
Donny couldn’t take his eyes off Puggy as he untwisted the ends of waxy paper and exposed the bonus comic strip wrapped around the small, keg-shaped, sugar-dusted treasure. Puggy’s eyes never left Donny’s as he carefully removed the gum, cupped it in his left palm, then licked the sweet powder off the strip, read it, giggled, and put it in his pocket. Then he gently took the gum between his thumb and forefinger, craned toward Donny, transported the bounty to his mouth and licked his fingers. The ritual ended. The chew began. Donny salivated. His jaw moved in unison. His imagination supplied the flavor. Donny thought to himself, “If pink had a taste it would be Fleer’s Dubble Bubble.”
Puggy skipped away in victory. Donny stood there with a set of earphones that would now spend every day in the inside jacket pocket of his abandoned Bar Mitzvah suit and every night pressed against his ears as he nervously searched the crystal set coil for news about the war. He was completely exhausted just in time for ‘43’s summer migration to Rockaway and the ‘Fiver.’
The war that kidnapped his brother and deposited him on battlefields thousands of miles away, made Donny feel like a helpless spectator, and it intensified his need for creative diversions that got him into trouble from time to time: not serious trouble, but prankish, mischievous trouble -- like when he would stand on one side of a street and direct Ben Dribben and Maggie McCrane to stand opposite him across the street and, on the count of three, appear to yank taut an imaginary rope just as a car approached too quickly for the driver to tempt fate and question his eyesight. The driver would inevitably slam the brakes and the car would screech to a halt. The confused victim, crumpled over the steering wheel, hat toppled to the dashboard, would glare at the rope-less perpetrators, angrily put his hat back on, and drive away in a huff-squared.
“Timing is everything,” Donny would bark as they prepared to do the deed. He was right. One of his victims was Marge Murphy, the hull-riveter, housewife of Sgt. Patrick Murphy, one of Far Rockaway’s ‘finest.’ As the Sergeant pulled Donny by the ear toward his mother and father on their bungalow porch, Donny bleated that his ‘actions’ were limited to speeders to slow them down so they didn’t kill someone. He had learned the term ‘actions’ from war newsreels. Esther and Sam would always plead their son’s case, and it worked until Donny loaded Murphy’s cruiser’s hubcaps with pebbles on the very day the sergeant’s precinct captain requested a drive-around inspection of the precinct. From that day forward, Donny was on Murphy’s ‘keep an eye on him’ list.
“I have my eye on you,” Murphy cautioned, “You’re lucky Jim McCrane’s my buddy and little Maggie is yours, only God knows why. Kid, your brother’s fighting a war! Maggie’s beautiful sister, Mary, is somewhere in the Pacific dodging ‘Nip’ bullets! Stop screwing around and do something important for a change! And do it in the Bronx where you people belong!” Donny processed “you people” without results.
Some of those “you people” were Benjamin Dribben, his mom, Lulu, and dad, Arthur. Arthur Dribben, shoe clerk at Florsheim Shoes flagship Bronx store on Fordham Road, had met Lulu Cohen, seamstress, in the Alexander’s Department Store fitting room. He was aroused by her gentle touch around his ankles as she folded and tacked the two-inch cuffs of a new pair of whipcord pants. The Dribbens didn’t have to get back to the Bronx until the PS 80 doors opened for the Fall term’s first morning assembly. Ben, dressed in mandatory white shirt and blue tie, would enter the school door having just about finished the course work for the coming term. Lulu had made sure of that.
“For God’s sake, Lulu,” pleaded Arthur every summer, “Why don’t you give the kid a break and let him enjoy his vacation for a change?”
“Because I don’t want him to spend his life on his knees like his mother and father,” shouted Lulu, hands on hips. “That is unless YOU want him to.”
Maggie McCrane lived year-round in Atlantic Beach, a small beach town next to Rockaway. There were no tenements, no Jews. Two years before Maggie met Donny, a few days after her tenth birthday, a month before the annual invasion, her dad, ‘Big’ Jim McCrane, plopped over unconscious next to his pickup truck during his annual rant about “those city-foreigners invading our way of life every God damned summer.” Big Jim, master fisherman, dean of the Atlantic Beach mini-fishing charter fleet, wizard of the fall striper and blues hunt, would fish no more. He would spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair, cogent, talkative and semi- ambulatory, alongside the counter of McCrane’s Bait and Tackle, a shed of a store bought with the proceeds of the sale of his beloved 1938 twin-engine Chris Craft Sportsman 29-footer that he couldn’t afford a mate for. To add to his chagrin, his beloved stick Woodie four-door station wagon had to be traded in for that new “automatic transmission piece of crap” that drove him rather the other way around.
Maggie met Donny in the summer of 1942 while he and Ben were fishing from the Cross Bay Bridge. An errant cast, made by a chubby guy with a cigar in his mouth, never made it over the rusty bridge railing down to the sandy bottom of Jamaica Bay hell bent on enticing a fluke or flounder. Instead, on the inept angler’s careless back swing, his barbed hook and piece of squid had ‘enticed’ Donny’s eyelid. Ben was shocked useless. Donny, his head turtled between his shoulders, stood there screaming until he felt Maggie’s hand grasp his wrist and heard her calm voice.
“You can keep crying until I say stop.”
Ben couldn’t watch as she snipped the line from the jerk’s rod, snipped the exposed hook behind the barb, removed what was left of the hook, washed his eyelid with something that fizzed, then painted it with mercurochrome while Donny stuttered, “If you use iodine, I’ll kill you!”
When his good eyelid began to rise, he saw her emerald green eyes staring at his tears resisting the plummet from his jaw to the ‘N’ and ‘E’ of his Yankees tee shirt.
It took Maggie months to reveal, in layers, her new relationship to her mother:
“I met a really nice boy.
His name is Donny.
He’s very smart and very funny.
His brother is in the army.
He’s not like us.
He’s from the city.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Peg had to listen to her baptized daughter practice pronouncing the ‘K’ and ‘N’ of knish as if they were was one consonant and the ‘C’ and ‘H’ as if she were clearing her throat.
“First Jim’s stroke and now this,” Peggy McCrane thought to herself.
The sound of outboards echoing under the Atlantic Beach Bridge and the rumble of the gleaming Long Island Railroad passing overhead on its regal columns were the only sounds that competed with the noisy seagulls. Maggie’s life was simple. Summer would spill into fall. It simply exhaled until the breath of spring returned.
The Far Rockaway Theater, the only movie house convenient to Atlantic Beach, only opened in the summer. But, during the fall, winter and spring, Maggie had an unimpeded view of the horizon draped over the Atlantic and she had her imagination. It was different in the Bronx. A constant deluge of movies and newsreels demystified the war for the tenement kids. What was happening across the two great ocean moats could be experienced, vividly, during some of the six hours of nonstop escape on the worn, not-so-silver screen in the Bronx’s Windsor Theater every Saturday morning. Two live acts, usually jugglers, trained poodles or the bare-midrifted ‘Estelle, The Snake Charmer,’ preceded two serials, four or five cartoons, the March of Time, a Western and a war movie. Both Estelle and her stoic albino python had seen better days, and so had the bottom half of her sequined two-piece costume, only the lower half of which did not have her stretch marked-etched stomach draped over it. Donny would crane from his front row center seat, fixated on her mail-slot navel, convinced the bored snake lived in it when it wasn’t performing. After spending six hours in the dark, the herd of kids pouring out of the theater needed five minutes to adjust to the dazzling mid-afternoon sun.
The gleam of Uncle Joe’s year-old racing green Electrostatic Drive Packard Clipper had been no match for the gleam on his face as he eyed his nephew in the exquisite machine’s rearview mirror. The Bakelite miracle Donny clutched to his lap had been a hard won victory over Joe’s wife, Ceil’s, insistence that her nephew would rather have cash than a radio for his fourteenth birthday. There were five passengers in the car, but it seemed empty without Eddie. Joe, Sam and Eddie always sat in front arguing about the Yankees and Giants.
Joe, the Giants fan would needle, “Did you ever see Keller without his shirt on? He’s a gorilla with stripes. He shouldn’t be playing left field in the majors. He should be playing for the Bronx Zoo. And what about a third baseman named Grimes? Grimes is the name of a mechanic, not a ballplayer. When the war’s over he’s over.”
This was the first year Donny hadn’t sat in back, sandwiched between Ceil and Esther’s eternal debate about whether God would forgive Esther for using a bit of butter when she made her matzoh balls, violating the sacred Torah law forbidding the marriage of dairy and meat the instant they plopped into her chicken soup.
“Traif!" exclaimed Ceil. “God will take one day from you each time you do such a thing.”
“I guarantee he’ll also take a matzoh ball,” said Esther.
Donny leaned over to his father.
“No curfew this year, right, Pop?”
Esther catapulted forward, her chin ending up on the seat back directly between her son and her husband.
“Sam, tell him.”
“Tell him what?” Sam asked.
“The Krauts would never try it again.” said Donny.
“How do you know?” asked Aunt Ceil.
“Because now we’re ready -- and we even caught them when we weren’t,” Donny shot back.
“We were lucky those krauts were more stupid then we were,” Joe chimed in.
“This was a very good conversation.” said Esther settling back on her seat. “I’ve learned a lot. . . You’ll be home on the porch or where I can see you ten minutes before it’s dark. No more talk!”
“Don’t waste your time, son,” said Sam. “One son out there in the dark is enough.”
Between the Bronx and the bungalow, as the Packard Clipper cruised over the Whitestone Bridge then onto the Cross Island Parkway passed Belmont Park Raceway, as the others gazed out the car’s windows keeping their thoughts to themselves, the exhausted Donny, sitting in his brother’s seat, had vowed to himself that the summer of ‘43 would be nothing but fun -- but it hadn’t been. The prism of innocence and wonder he had viewed life through had been replaced by a veil of worry.