March 1, 2012

My vivid memories of early Levittown NY from a lifetime ago. It was as much an invention as it was a place. Part 2.

Tim and Mitch Lavey are shown "guarding" early Levittown.

Ed Lavey was a wordsmith, storyteller, poet, artist, photographer and teacher.

Levittown Cape Cods in 1951. The trees and bushes had yet to flourish and no dormers or garages are in sight, just three youngsters enjoying a sunny day.

Click on photos to enlarge.


Class of 1961

My childhood friend from up the street, Bob Vitrone, and I took Kevin Byrne to Yankee Stadium. It was a doubleheader in 1961 and we watched Roger Maris en route to 61 home runs poke one into the right field stands. Not long ago, Kevin’s reflection on that day was published in Newsday’s “Thanks for the Memories” column.

“My favorite memory of Yankee Stadium was my first trip there as a 12 year old in 1961. Jimmy Piersall was in center field for the Indians. Two men jumped onto the field and ran toward Piersall. He fended them off and kicked one in the rear as he ran away. The crowd went crazy. Mickey Mantle was standing on second base with an umpire laughing,” according to Kevin.

From Armand Tarantelli, who was like a brother to my dad, I learned to drive. Both were long-time Division Avenue teachers. That I have come this far accident-free and still alive and my family safe, I have Mr. T largely to thank. (Tarry lives around the corner from Kevin Byrne in Levittown.) It has been one of the greatest pleasures to know Tarry and his wife, Ines, better than I ever did so many years ago.

I couldn’t hit or throw a baseball accurately in high school, but I played Pony League and as a catcher could stop most pitches and took many a throw from the outfield standing my ground at the plate. Pete Cybriwsky asked me to catch him for several weeks in preparation for tryouts with Yankee Rookies. Perhaps he asked others. Pete saw something in me that I was struggling to see in myself.

I took his friendship with me to NYU where I made the freshman team. I hit .400 that year, batted fourth in the line up, and played third base. Few would ever know or care, but at one of the reunions Frank Barning brought the subject up. He had stumbled over a record of my private achievement while looking through some old score books when he was the sports information director at Hofstra.

Pete wrote these words to me in my father’s 1960 yearbook. “Jeff, You are one guy in next year’s class that this school will be proud to graduate. You’ve got the intestinal fortitude of a warrior and a heart that is kind and aware of others. Thanks for letting me be your friend.” Pete, who died way too young, was early Levittown's star pitcher.

Ed Lavey was my friend and a friend to many—a soul teacher. I loved seeing him walk through the door of my house, with a broad, warm smile and a pipe that radiated friendship. I walked by the Laveys’ Orchid Road house on the way to school every day. Sometimes I’d poke my head in and end up wishing I could spend the morning and skip school. Ed was a wordsmith, a storyteller, poet, artist, photographer and teacher, He painted with passion and imagination in his carport studio. He was always involved in discourse or dialectic — deep in Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, Haiku, Zen. ‘Roofsmith’ in bold black stood out on his bright yellow truck. Ed worked hard, mostly by himself, although my classmate Wally Linder worked with him for a while. There’s an honorary picture of Ed in the 1961 yearbook because he took and developed many of its pictures.

He and beautiful Arlene and their boys, Tim, Mitch and Robin were often at the house. We sat around the kitchen table in regular reunions well into the 1960s. Ed had a deep and enduring effect on our small circle of friends, which included Pat Calderwood, Daria Marusevich, Jerry Reichert, John Fitzsimmons, Allie Greengold and Wally Linder. He made us question our way of looking at the world. Ed was close friends with the Fitzsimmons and Sandy Limouze then the Dean of Kings Point, and several school principals and a school superintendent, and Tom and Ann Thibadeau, (Bart, Paul, and Susan’s mom and dad). Tom taught English in Levittown.

In the early 1970s, after I was discharged from the Army and life swept me off Long Island, Ed and Tom were interviewed on FM radio. You can listen to that interview here.

When you get into a conversation about great teachers, you necessarily move into terrain related to the reality of school itself. We all tend to romanticize the experience, kind of like we do when reflecting back on time in the military, but in my first hours in the Army my mind exploded with memories of elementary school. In terms of what one is free to do and what one is not free to do, in terms of the herding yelling, control, authority, and

the threat of punishment, both experiences collided. I may have gotten more out of playing in the catacombs and the underground tunnels of Northside School under construction than I did having to sit all day in school.

I have always questioned the value and legitimacy of formal education. And some excellent teachers I have known feel that way, too. In high school, I can recall my gaze affixed for weeks through the window on a man, maybe it was two, atop the Levittown water tower, painting red and white squares, and wondering where he got the guts and skill to do that all day long.

The thing about early Levittown is that as we grew up with it, it grew into us – got under our skin. Levittown was as much an invention as it was a place. We took part in its creation, even as it created us. Unlike towns with established histories, ours developed from scratch over time, allowed us to feel the freedom of young pioneers, to run and ride along labyrinthine pathways we all but owned.

I recall the day in October of 1949 when I stepped out the front door of 35 Snowbird Lane. It was flat and soundless — the sky an expanse of openness and the sun low in the sky — strange to eyes and ears used to the apartment buildings and the rattle of trolley cars of Brooklyn, no streets, road, trees, sounds, lampposts, sidewalks, just dark earth, and houses, many waiting vacant. I looked to my right and there, in front of the house next door, was a boy, smaller than five-year-old me. He was looking down, his head a shock of red hair against the mud brown landscape. He was a kid I would know for years to come. I recall that moment as a time stamp — the moment I landed as a settler. It was a lifetime ago, but it was a blink within a series of longer blinks of time and travel.

We never heard the explosion, but for sure we are all outward, far-flung stars in the wake of our own big bang.

Early Levittown photos courtesy of Tim Lavey


Marilyn Monsrud Frese DAHS '63 said...

What an amazing piece Jeff. I was mesmerized by your your stories posted here. Your prose is breathtaking! Thank you so much for sharing such a great look back! I am still here in Levittown, my sister living behind me in our old house. There is something about this town that, unless you lived here in the early years, you just cannot understand the connection. But you have it too and you have the amazing talent to put it into words and make it all come alive again. What a joy to go back in time with you! Thanks Frank for bringing forth Jeff's masterful storytelling ! It has been such a pleasure!

Toni Crescenzo Gelfer said...

Early Levittowners have a shared heritage and an internal sense that they lived through something unique and beautiful..I feel it.. everyday.. and try to project those values and feelings to my grand kids..Your writing is inspiring and leaves the reader wanting more..I totally agree about formal education, but, this is an unpopular discussion in today's world..Thanks for contributing to this blog..It was wonderful to read..

Anonymous said...

Leslie Sands Bell '68 wrote: This piece struck every nerve in my body-all five senses came alive and the utter truth of words evoked such emotion-wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Kathy Stahlman Zinn '63 wrote: Beautiful writing! wish I had known this guy - we would have had lots to talk about (outside of baseball!)_ Jeff - keep writing!

Frank Barning said...

Tim Lavey's early Levittown photos in parts 1 and 2 added a special dimension to Jeff Peyton's prose. Click on the photos and they become enlarged, providing a glimpse of Levittown 60 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Mark D. Rotker '68 wrote: great stuff....still we search for the Nirvana which was childhood Levittown. Never before or since. Friendly neighbors at each turn. Hell, I've never even gotten a hello from most of my next door occupants. Neighbors now are a geographic term only. Glad I lived in a place and time where it wasn't.

Jeff said...

Much as I enjoyed telling my stories, it's just as great to receive these wonderful comments. They make me glad that I contributed to Frank's Blog---a real gift to all of us.