August 18, 2010

There is more to the early Levittown story than just nostalgia

By Frank Barning, class of 1960
When we were in school, color televisions and air conditioners were rare in our homes. Boy, were we low tech. Do you remember those sputtering movie projectors that the audio-visual squad was on alert to fix because often they broke down during classes?

During the past two decades, the internet has be a major influence in our lives. It has been a powerful tool that has allowed me to be in touch with numerous Division Avenue High School alums from the early 1960s classes. Facebook has taken it to another level.

From the stories that I have received from fellow Division Avenue students, a book could be written. Many of our fathers were in WW II and that colored the lives of a multitude of families, the way the Vietnam war did 25 years or so later.

It took the Vietnam war for many of us to understand that is was not improper to defy the powerful. As Bob Dylan sang back then, “The times, they are a changing.” Today, it often appears that very little authority remains in our society. I surely would not want to work in most public schools. Division Avenue High School was mostly a safe little island when we attended it.

What interests me more than nostalgia of the old days is the sociology of growing up in post-war Levittown. Most of us were naïve kids during our high school days, more interested in sock hops and football games than the dynamics that were going on, unbeknownst to us, in our community.

A lot of good students did not go to college right out of high school due to financial reasons. Many of the guys joined the military and eventually the G.I. Bill provided the money to secure a college education. Many of us earned degrees well after high school, plowing through courses at night after long days of work. Moms went to college after their children left the nest. Several of our teachers received their higher education because of the GI Bill.

One DAHS grad told me of getting together with a small group of friends around the time of a reunion in 2000. She said that everyone in that gathering had at least one alcoholic parent. Another classmate believes that many of our fathers died before what might have been projected because of the chemicals in the pesticides they used, much of which are now banned in the United States.

My dad, an avid gardener, was often up to his elbows in pesticides such as DDT and chlordane fighting off the Japanese beetles and other varmints in our yard. Those Levittown potato fields had good soil, although there was an infestation of something called nematodes. He died at age 73. Mom and dad loved their Camel cigarettes and cocktail time.

Few of their generation experienced any therapy or exercised at a gym. It would have been useful for many of the WWII veterans. Most of our mothers did not work and more than a few kept in shape walking to a Village Green for groceries. There were not a lot of two-car families in early Levittown. Before moving to Levittown, many did not own even a single automobile.

I wonder if any of us have both parents who are still living. To the best of my knowledge, my classmate Larry Bory's parents lived the longest from our group. Both were still alive five years ago when his mother passed on at age 89. His dad died last year at age 96. From what I have learned, almost all of the dads are gone.

It's interesting how many of us have moved to the Sunbelt, primarily to Florida. A small colony live in Southern California, mostly in the Los Angeles area. A large number are still in Levittown, which says something very positive about our old hometown.

I have identified only three members of the class of 1960 who have doctorates, Jeff Lincer, Toby Rutner and Ellen Rees. Since we attended a new high school, don’t you wonder if we got a good education? Where did these teachers come from?

Some of the best, including James Chenevey from the math department, left before we graduated. A few years ago, I called Mr. Chenevey to thank him for being the best teacher I ever had. He told me that he left because he couldn’t stand the department chairman. Fifty years later, some of the guys in our classes still lament the coaches who left, especially Floyd Kenyon from wrestling and the first football coach, Al Tarney. Richard Streb was another teacher who was popular, and also gone after a few years.

Two members of the class of 1960 were giants in rock and roll. Do a Google search to find out about Woodstock co-creator Artie Kornfeld, and the late Sterling Morrison, one of the founding members of the rock group The Velvet Underground.

My classmate Rich Humbert told me a few years ago that Sterling was the smartest person in our grade. I remember that while most of us carried around huge stacks of schoolbooks (this was before back packs), Sterling never seemed to have any. He didn’t need them, or maybe didn’t care. He was quite a character and more talented than we knew. Besides playing the guitar, Sterling was adept at making bombs.

According to Humbert,"In our Senior English Regents exam he wrote a perfect essay - no one wrote perfect essays - he deliberately made a stupid punctuation mistake and received a 99 on the test. I remember that whatever drone was teaching - and there were a few drones in a remarkable group of teachers - had his essay reviewed by most of the English department looking for a flaw. None was found."

I suspect that this blog will feature a variety of stories dealing with the sociology of early Levittown. Little has been written, as an internet search will prove. Gee, there I go again talking about the internet. How did we survive without it?

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