February 28, 2012

Memories of when Levittown and I were young. We grew up together, Part 1

Click on photos to enlarge

Early Levittown, New York photos courtesy of Tim Lavey, DAHS class of 1963

Jeff Peyton, class of 1961, who moved to his new home town in 1949


When my family moved from Brooklyn in October of 1949 I think my brain became

partitioned like the old hard drives, one side Brooklyn, the other Levittown.

Both are filled with teeming, sharply distinct memories.

While two teachers have a warm place in my heart, Bob Henebry and Bert

Chapman, they were like all teachers -- defined by a culture that few ever

rise above. Sadly, Henebry and Chapman left Long Island for parts unknown without

a way to keep connected. There were other teachers who lived in the

village outside of my classrooms. These people did things with me, shared

what they knew with me. Took me by the hand, won over my heart, opened

my mind, changed my thinking and sense of myself.

Like Major Harry Harmon, a Kansas Air Force vet. The Harmons, I think,

had two daughters. As a military family, they were “not in Kansas any

more,” but surely hoped to get back home soon. They lived near the corner

of Snowbird and Tanager. Their house inside was plain and unadorned. I

recall walking with Major Harry (I was eight) down to Old Motor Parkway. In

the dry-baked air of a Long Island summer seasoned with milkweed and wild flower

and the endless flit and click of toad, butterfly, moth, dragon fly and locust,

we became naturalists. One afternoon, I watched the Major coax a bee off

a puff of clover into his open hand. The knowledge that you could let a bee

walk across your hand and not be stung, as long as your hand remained

open, amounted to super power I had not seen in any comic book.

There was Gene, the Clover Dairy milk man, who let me climb aboard at

7:15 every Saturday morning. I can still summon the damp smell of ice and

milk in the truck and feel the morning air against my face, my arms stretched

across the open door. There was the weight of the bottles and the rare OJ

in the metal carrier, and the clean snap of the milk box lid falling shut, and

the sense of other worlds and people were just waking up inside the houses.

Around 9 a.m., my sneakers green and dew-soaked, Gene dropped me off at

home with a flip of a quarter at me through the truck door.

There was Bill Levitt who lived on Pelican just east of Northside school.

Bill had a small box-like Chevy van which he used for his moving business.

I was his regular assistant and navigator. We went everywhere — Nassau,

Suffolk, even into Brooklyn. I learned to use the old wire-bound Hagstrom

street atlas and kept Bill on the straight and narrow. There was the day we

moved a fridge up three flights of stairs in Jamaica. My pay was $2.50 an hour.

There was big Ray and his old Volvo station wagon. Ray delivered papers -- the Long Island Press, Newsday, The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, The

Journal-American. Ray picked me up at 3:30 on Sunday morning, and drove

over to the Meadowbrook Theater where we packed inserts for an hour or

more behind the great brick edifice that protected us from the wind in the

dead of winter. In Ray’s hands and fingers, cracked, hard and blackened

from newsprint, I could read the meaning of work and its corrosive effect

on the body and learned not to take a warm bed and a chance to sleep in for


I worked for Herbert Richheimer and Sons on the trash pick up crew. We showed up

at home improvement sites and filled up the dump trunk. A college friend

and I painted the Northside School boiler room. A guy named Carmine was

the head janitor. Long gone by 1966 were the old-timers, the two Northside

School custodians, Smitty and Mr. Sparks, with his blue eyes and white curly

hair. I can still smell the sawdust-cedar mix they pushed with their brooms

down the hallway. Smitty lived on Swallow Lane, his house at the entrance

to the back field of Northside. Smitty would drop a couple of Kraft caramels

into your hand as you passed him in the hallway.

Across the street lived the big kid of Snowbird Lane, Joe Byrne, a New York

City cop. Joe wasn’t supposed to live outside the city limits, but, an ex sea

bee, Joe was not afraid to break a rule. Joe played stick ball, curb ball, touch

football. You could call his name and out of his house he’d come. From Joe

I learned how important adults could be when they actually did things with

you, took an interest in you, and joined you in play. Joe lived across from

us for a mere six years, but it seemed like a lifetime.

When Joe’s son, Kevin, contacted my sister after my dad passed in January 2011, Kevin and I re-connected and then he put me in touch with Joe. Joe, 85, is happily married

and still roller skates just like he did at the Levittown rink, despite the fact

that he’s got a pin in his hip from a spill a few years ago. On the phone I

could have been talking to a man in his 30s. From Joe and experiences with

others like him sprang the seeds of play and a belief about education I am

still advancing in my work.


This is part one of a two-part story


Toni Crescenzo Gelfer said...

Absolutely beautiful story..looking forward to part two...

Marilyn Monsrud Frese '63 said...

WOW!!! First, I want to commend Jeff on his remarkable memory! And his prose brought back some wonderful memories! (The sound of the milk box closing!!! My sister and I would race for the fresh bottles to get the cream off of the top!) Wonderful details in your stories Jeff... and you know, the devil is in the details!! Can't wait for Part 2 ! (My family was also one of the first to move into Levittown... what a thrill!)

Anonymous said...

From Ken Plass, class of 1960: Jeff Peytons's narrative is amazingly real. His memories print a vivid picture of an era that we all lived.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully done, Jeff.

I am continually impressed by the writing skills of my DAHS classmates, as exhibited in these blogs, but this may well be the finest to date.

Looking forward to Part II.

Jim Urban

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