July 12, 2012

My earliest Levittown memories were the beginning of a half-century old fascination

By FRANK BARNING

Moving to Levittown in October 1954 was like being in a science fiction story where you wake up on a far distant shore. The first dozen years of my life were spent in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. I was a city kid. And all of a sudden, here we were in "the country."

Levittown was so quiet, so wide open. I had lived in a six-story apartment house just a few steps to a wide variety of stores and a short walk to the subway. At first glance, my new home at 10 Hyacinth Road was in "the sticks." I wasn't unhappy to move, but it was incredibly different. There was so much grass, so many neat little houses, no problem finding a place to park the family car. There was room to roam.

When you move, at any age, there can be a concern about finding new friends. Little did I realize in the beginning that Levittown in 1954 was a paradise for kids. There were so many of us. Our Cape Cod house was at the corner of Hyacinth and Primrose Lane. I quickly found out that all I had to do to make friends was to ride my bicycle on these streets and I would be greeted by boys who were incredibly welcoming.

The first one I met was Steve Zwerling who introduced me to his next-door neighbor Artie Reiersen. Then I met Mike Gurr who lived next to Louie Pascale on Primrose Lane, near my corner. This became a core group of kids during my junior high years. Soon after we moved in, the Giffords bought the house across the street from us, which added Eddie and Bobby to the crew. I was in hog heaven almost from day one.

Of course, I was changing schools and that could have been a challenge. But my new seventh-grade classmates were friendly and I felt at home, at least socially, immediately. Kids that come to mind are Richie Humbert, Louise Nicolosi, Joan Lucas, Mickey Graham, Lilette Levy, Pat Kraft, Emily Estow, Damon Solomon, Phil Adrian and Midge Bollinger.

Many happy hours were soon spent playing baseball and basketball under the shadow of the Azalea Road water tower. And if no one was there to choose up a game, the North Village Green beckoned.

Acclimating to new classes and teachers was not as easy. First of all, the school year was into its second month. So I was behind. And there was this class listed on my schedule as Cit. Ed. I had never heard of this subject. What gives?

The only class, academically, that was a problem was roly-poly Robert Reggio's seventh grade science. I had been at my new school maybe two days and he announced that there would be a test. I asked if I could be excused and Mr. Reggio wasn't buying it. The result, I got a grade of 32. Holy shit, what will my mother think? Frankly, I was afraid of disappointing her and here I had gotten a 32 on my first test in my new school.

I told Mr. Reggio, who I came to realize was a great teacher and gentleman, that he was being unfair. He wasn't buying that either. Well, I was going to show him that I was a good student and I rarely worked harder in any class. The result was that I earned a high 90s on the final exam in June. When the grades came out, I reminded him of my unfair 32 in October. "I knew you could do it, Frank," he told me. Well, I doubt that he "knew" it but that embarrassing grade was a great motivator and more than a half century later remains in my septuagenarian mind.

In 1954, Division Avenue High School had not yet been created. We were Division Avenue School until the spanking new high school, connected to the junior high, opened two years later. There was a cozy small gymnasium in which dances were held on Fridays instead of physical education. Most of the boys did not know how to dance, but it sure was fun slow dancing with the girls in my grade. That might have been THE highlight of seventh grade for me. I developed a crush on one girl that I held for six years. Don't ask because I won't tell who she was.

My first gym teacher was Eugene Aeillo, another all-time great person. A few years later, he became the assistant principal. For English I had the studious looking James Reilly who became the principal. My math teacher was Jim Chenevey, the best instructor I ever had. Harold Fricke was to become a revered art teacher and I was in love with Miss Dorothea Stahman who was the music teacher. She later became Mrs. Fitzsimmons. I am not sure if my teacher for industrial arts was David Peyton or Armand Tarantelli. Both were fine men but I was not cut out (pun intended) to use a saw. Of all the teachers I have mentioned, only Mr. Tarantelli is still living.

I even liked the lunchroom. The food may not have been great but it sure beat the swill that the New York City schools dished out. That stuff was foul. The playground at my school in Forest Hills was all cement. Not a single blade of grass. But behind Division Avenue School were acres of grass and for a boy who loved to play sports, this was a dream.

I am extremely thankful that my mother and dad moved us to Levittown in 1954. It was the beginning of a fascination with my new home town which remains strong even though I left Long Island 30 years ago. Many of my memories and those of other early Division Avenue students have been captured in this blog which began in July 2010.

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