In the early 1940s, there was a world war going on. My brothers, Lou and Fred, were in Europe. At home, each of us had our daily jobs, whether it was work or taking care of the family. My job was to go to school, get good grades and write letters to my brothers overseas and let them know all was well, and that their little sister was doing her job. The return letters from overseas came back to us on onion-skin paper. It was called V-mail. I remember the red, white and blue folded paper. Many times when it was opened, some words were blackened out or words were missing. This was war, and the mail was censored to protect our troops giving any information that may slip through that could be used by the enemy.
At that time, I did not put much importance of censorship since the important thing was the communication between family members. My brother, Lou, wrote such colorful, if not grammatically correct letters, yet each one was filled with such humor and detail. Some were so good I was asked to read them at our assembly on Mondays at school.
Remember assemblies, girls wearing white middy blouses with ties and boys uncomfortable in their starched white long-sleeved shirts with red or blue ties and dark trousers. This was where we saluted our flag and pledged our allegiance. We then said a short prayer of no particular denomination, and nobody was offended. We also listened to of all things, musical selections of a classical nature. It might be Brahms, DeVorak, Beethoven or Chopin. Even today, these melodies will come to mind in my reverie. Elementary school then gave us a scope of information and richness of culture that we carry with us for a long time.
I remember another project we made during this time at school. It was two squares of oilcloth stitched together with wool thread and filled with old newspapers. We made these in arts and crafts class and we had to carry them throughout the school day in the event of an air raid drill or attack by our enemies. We would use these to sit on in the halls or under our desks. We took this seriously; it was wartime. Luckily it was only drills that happened.
I reflect back and recall some of the childhood things we did with no particular sequence or importance. School is out and it is the end of June in Brooklyn, New York. What did the summer hold for children in the city when I was young?
I looked forward to days at Coney Island. We took the trolley a block from my house to Coney Island and the cost was only 5 cents. I remember the white sand on the beach, splashing in the cool water and diving into the waves. Later, we looked forward to eating hot dogs at the famous Nathan’s, knishes at Shatkins and soft custard. Even the very smells come back to me in my reverie. On Tuesdays after the sun went down and it was dark, Coney Island had a grand display of fireworks, but only after the war was over.
Our summer activities found us searching the neighborhood for old kitchen floor linoleum. Some family on the street was always replacing the floor and set out the old flooring for the garbage men to pick up. The neighborhood kids made guns with two pieces of wood that were nailed together.
A strong rubber band was attached on the top and squares of the cut-up linoleum were slipped under the rubber band to use as bullets. I guess it was the influence of the war, but children always played these games, it seemed.
Some of the boys would make box carts or scooters with old skates attached to an orange crate with 2-inch-by-4-inch pieces of wood. Racing speed and style of your car placed you in an order of importance in the neighborhood.
Each day we waited for the truck to come to our block. This special truck had a merry-go-round with miniature wooden horses or cars you cold sit in for a ride. It was a treat for 10 cents. The sound of ringing bells would attract children who ran to catch up with the Good Humor man or another ice cream treat.
The highlight of the summer was the Fourth of July. This would be a grand holiday with family and friends. Neighbors would get together and share their food and drinks and play games of softball, bocce, cards and activities they enjoyed. Our family always gathered together, and before the night was over and the beer was almost finished, they would be harmonizing the old familiar songs of the day. “Oh Marie,” “Heart of My Heart” and “Margie” were some of the most popular. Everybody, it seemed, had a favorite that had to be sung.
The most important part of the holiday was the parade that marched through our streets for blocks and blocks. Men, women and children marched proudly with miniature flags. They sang patriotic songs and some did weep as they moved through our streets in Bensonhurst.
The best celebrations were held after the war was over. Every neighborhood had block parties. That summer was a continuous string of parties where food, singing and dancing was exhibited. United together, we welcomed the soldiers, sailors and marines home and gave thanks to God for the safe return of fathers, sons and brothers. We acted in concert, regardless of religion, race or lifestyle. We were truly one people banding together.
I remember it well, and I hope and pray our country will once again feel the unity and love so evident at that time.
Linda Alessi is a Lebanon Democrat contributing columnist writing about life in the younger years.