May 26, 2016
Growing up in what we considered “Beautiful Brooklyn” in the 50s and 60s, who would wish to live anywhere else?
We had tree-lined streets and neighborhoods that were like little villages back in those “good old days.” Every main avenue contained a slew of Mom and Pop retail stores whose owners and managers knew the shoppers, most times by first name.
We kids would play the street games in front of our houses that the suburban kids could never play. You know, games like stoopball, box baseball and ring-a-leevio. That six-foot space of sidewalk from our stoops to the street was our playground.
Wearing our Davey Crockett coonskin caps with our air guns in hand, Roy Edelstein, little Johnny Molinari and I fought the Germans and the Indians each and every afternoon. Then, at the same time (around 5 p.m., I think) our Moms would shout from their windows “It’s Howdy Doody time!” and off we scampered to our living rooms.
Life was great for young 6-year-olds, wasn’t it? Don’t forget, we still had the Dodgers and who didn’t love Dem Bums in Brooklyn… except of course those traitors, the Giant and Yankee fans.
Things were really not so great in the 50s and early 60s.
In grade school we intermittently had those Cold War drills whereupon everyone in the school had to either “duck and cover” under our desks or be marched out into the halls to sit compact against the walls.
Then, in the early 60s the new Russian A-Bomb Attack Paranoia was handled by the residential Bomb Shelter, usually built in the basement to protect a family from annihilation.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had to be the “crowning jewel” of WWIII fears. For those somber days in late October our Brooklyn neighborhood was like a morgue. We Catholics spent our evenings attending Novena services at our churches. The anxiety levels reached astronomical proportions and for the first time this writer can remember people actually seemed more tolerant of each other.
The children of Howdy Doody lived in a Brooklyn where racism and bigotry was prevalent… perhaps more subtle than the Jim Crow south. No, in the overwhelmingly majority of Brooklyn neighborhoods whites and blacks did not live together and rarely attended the same schools.
By the mid 60s school busing became the thing, but it did not succeed nearly as expected. Black kids had to be bussed pretty far from their homes and most of the time hung out with each other at school.
Eventually, the races mingled more, but the white kids’ fear of blacks came mostly from being raised in families that really did not knowoo many people of color. Honestly, the only black people that we children of Howdy Doody saw in our neighborhoods were the cleaning ladies, janitors and deliverymen.
This writer can still remember, at the age of five, walking with my mother around the corner to the grocery store and on the avenue a black man was approaching. As he got nearer my mother grabbed my little hand very tightly… until he passed.
As far as bigotry, our neighborhood was predominately a mix of Italian, Jewish and Irish. Yet, in many non-Jewish homes one could always hear the negative talk concerning Jewish people. Phrases like “Jewed him down” when referring to business dealings or “Cheap Jew” were common.
On the other side of the coin, many Jewish families went out of their way to discourage their children from getting too romantically involved with “Goyim” or non Jews. “You can socialize with them… just don’t marry them!” Of course, in many Christian families in Brooklyn during the 50s and early 60s marrying a Jew was tantamount to heresy.
The great liberating factor for this writer and many of my white friends was attending a city university. At Brooklyn College we all mingled and got to know each others’ traditions through friendly conversation.
There was still the attempt at “exclusivity” by the various ethnic groups at the college: Italians, secular Jews, orthodox Jews, Blacks, Hispanics etc, but walls were breaking down. Our college football team was made up of almost an exact 50-50 split between blacks and whites.
We all got along fairly well… of course, some things don’t change too quickly, as with our segregated (by choice) bus rides from the campus to the practice field miles away. A small handful of us managed to ride to and from the field with guys from the other group, but that was the exception, not the rule.
One incident does stick out though in this writer’s memory bank that showed how our team finally blended into “One unit.” We were playing a game at Rutgers of Livingston in New Jersey.
Their team was well ranked in our conference, and was made up of 100 percent black players. They wore the black and silver colors of the Oakland Raiders (a top team at that time) and played rough and tough just like the Raiders.
This writer was a pretty good wide receiver with a big rep for my prowess. The Rutgers defensive back guarding me was right in my face for every play from scrimmage. He was talking trash and playing me tight.
On one play I rolled off of his “bump and run” and caught a deep pass. When he tackled me, as we rolled around on the ground, I did my usual thing: I pushed him off of me with my cleats and jumped up handing the ball to him. He went ballistic and punched me. The referee threw his flag, and I turned to their stands and raised my arm with fist clenched shouting “Power to the people!”
The stands erupted and the Rutgers fans ran down to the fence screaming at me. All hell broke loose on the field as well. Our defense rushed out onto the field and players from both squads were scuffling.
In the midst of this all, our biggest and baddest D-lineman, Chris Jackman, ran up to me and said “Ok Farruggio, let the brothers handle this one!”
More than 40 years have transpired since those college days. Two marriages, two sons grown up and so many friends gone for good. As one gets on in age, to what they foolishly call “The Golden Years,” memories are mostly what we have left to draw from.
Being a child of Howdy Doody was not so bad after all. That world was a few clicks simpler and the sense of community was much greater than what our kids and grandkids experience in this hi tech world.
That 10-inch television set was like a movie screen to we youngsters. The local candy store was our “town square” for neighbors to mingle over a Lime Rickey or Egg Cream. Who needed smart phones and I-pads when we had each other to bounce our ideas, our fears and our dreams off of?
Where are you now, Buffalo Bob Smith, to keep everything copacetic?