By Chris Veech
I remember the khaki green boxes from World War II, the war I inhaled and exhaled from the time I was six years old. Everything was green or gray then it seemed. Those boxes started coming when the war was over, after Nagasaki and Hiroshima had become shadows.
Second Avenue in Brooklyn, New York was blocked off by a heavy chain link fence during the war because it fronted the shore level Brooklyn Army Base, a huge, dark edifice that stretched for eight blocks, one of which I lived on in a 19th century brownstone building. There were railroad tracks running all around the base and down to the shipping docks where thousands upon thousands of young soldiers left for the European sector of WWII.
Those soldiers were quartered at the Army Base while they waited for the ships to be loaded, and during their hiatus, they trained on Second Avenue and the Armory which was two blocks down. The avenue was filled with tanks and cannons, parked and waiting to be loaded on the ships with the men. The ships came and went continuously.
I remember that those soldiers looked so young. As they marched up and down the avenue, they smiled shyly at us kids where we sat watching on the stoops of the two corner houses. It was exciting and different for us to begin with, and then it sadly became normal as the war dragged on. Often, when the drill sergeant wasn’t looking, some of those young men would wave, and we would wave back, and call out friendly hellos.
Some of the boys from the block would talk about what they’d do when it came time for them to go. They weren’t more than ten then. They talked as if the war would always be there waiting for them. As it turned out, Korea was there for them when they grew up and could finally fit into the uniforms of battle. And their children and grandchildren grew up into the waiting arms of Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Iraq.
I used to freeze when the boys talked like that because somewhere I’d heard that some soldiers did not return. I didn’t really understand that when, here on Second Avenue, they seemed so strong and alive...so young. And when they left on those huge ships they were so jubilant, unrestrained and happy; their leaving was electric and festive like ticker-tape parades for heroes.
We neighborhood children were always at the docks bright and early to wave goodbye to our transient friends. We didn’t need special passes. All the M.P.s knew us. They lived in the rooms and apartments that had been carved out in our homes at the request of the “Little Flower,” Mayor LaGuardia. He also had us collecting fat and tinfoil for the “war effort.” Mothers became air raid wardens like my mother; dads worked in the shipyards, mine building PT boats because he was too old for the Army. Everyone was proud to be part of the effort.
I always waved and screamed and blew kisses with all the other children as the ships backed out of their slips. The confetti that was slipped into our hands sometimes made it all seem like a big party. Those young men would stay safe, come back and be welcomed with the same festivity. As the ships steamed out of the harbor, I usually fought back tears, but I didn’t know why I felt so sad.
In 1942, when I was nine, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to see a troop ship off. The neighborhood crowds lined the streets from the Embarkation Center as the open car came by slowly. Since I was small, I was up in front, and when the car turned the corner, I could have touched it. The President sat hunched over in the front seat with the driver. Fala, his dog, was in the back seat standing at attention it seemed. There were no secret service agents, just one police motorcycle in front and one in the rear of the car.
The drama of the moment, the creeping car with no parade hoopla, the weary president’s tear-filled eyes in the saddened face froze the moment for me forever. Here was an adult who felt the things I felt when I said goodbye to all those young soldiers. The President looked at me briefly in my starched cotton dress and long golden braids, and smiling wanly, he winked. Perhaps he had a vague thought about what war...and peace...was really about.
All too soon, he was dead. I heard the radio announcement one day when I was alone in the house. And I sobbed for the man who had shown me, however briefly, that he could feel. By then I was eleven.
The war wound down, the death count mounted. Dresden was destroyed, one Crystal Nacht for another. Everyone wanted the war to end, any way at all. It was becoming inconvenient, with 300,000 U.S. casualties and 50 million overall.
And they did end it. First with D Day, and then by dropping the Atom Bomb on a whimpering Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The shadows of those blasts are still with us.
There were angry voices about the horror of the Bomb, the sorry victims of our science. As a child, I could not understand why such a horrible thing had to happen. Somehow I was glad President Roosevelt had not lived to see the result of his secret experiment. I did not want to believe that had he lived he would have dropped the Bomb.
In 1947, to counter all the furor, the Truman Administration, with the sponsorship of the American Heritage Foundation, sent the Freedom Train around the country. It carried all the original documents of this country’s history, the pieces of the past that were usually locked away in Philadelphia or Washington D.C. Now they were served up to the public, under glass, in a roving, temperature controlled railroad car. The train did its work well, heightening patriotic feeling in the land, and stilling its Calvinistic conscience.
The train made a stop at the Brooklyn Army Base, snaking its way along the tracks that ran through the grounds, the same tracks that carried everything in and out of the Base. The railroad car stood dwarfed in the massive darkness of the building. To get to it, we youngsters went a secret way. I remember zigzagging in and out of large khaki green boxes...army issue...stacked one upon the other. I will never forget those boxes.
They had begun arriving just before the Freedom Train rolled in. They came by ship, and like the soldiers a few years before, were awaiting transport...but this time inland. It hit me suddenly as my friends and I wove our way through the maze of boxes. Each box had four names, identification numbers and destinations.
I can remember stopping cold when I realized we were surrounded by death, and so were those precious documents displayed in their own kind of coffin. I felt sick as I stood among those stacked boxes, as my friends kept going.
It was a giant complex of death. Inside each box were four coffins, four bodies; four of those young men I had waved to in the course of four years of war. And there were so many boxes. None draped with flags. That would come later when they reached home. I felt chills, and could almost smell the decay. I remember thinking there couldn’t be much left of them, certainly not their smiles. I felt sick to my stomach again. There was no confetti here, no party welcome; just those drab boxes. These soldiers didn’t make it.
It took years before the boxes stopped coming.
Our war dead return by jet now, and we hardly know what it means to die in war, if we ever did. We came close to understanding perhaps on 9/11. The dead and dying were in our media constantly as we watched a cowardly attempt to destroy the fabric of our society. But our heroes were the same; everyday people whose actions saved many lives, and sometimes cost them their own. We mourned as a society, as a world. And now there is the smoke and mirrors of conflict in the name of being anti-terrorist. In the name of being safe, as if that is ever totally possible.
It is the legacy of the shadows. ... And the khaki green boxes.
|Why did we do it?
What was our purpose in taking on such an open ended “History Project”;
for which we evolved a script of questions and got answers from over 150 subjects for two decades?
We couldn’t answer the question in 1994 when people would ask “What are you going to do with the interviews?”
All we could say was that for educational purposes we had to document our record now or lose the chance to preserve so many poignant accounts, funny stories and touching tales told by exemplary educators. We knew these dedicated public servants might shortly, for reasons yet unknown, be leaving Brentwood for good.
So, we decided to let time sort out the details. We began scheduling appointments. We asked questions and listened saving for generations the essence of what it meant to have been an educator or employed, in this large public school system during the second half of the 20th century. Brentwood remains an exemplar to all others; a diverse microcosm of America reflecting 124 districts on Long Island while simultaneously resembling thousands across the U.S. We’ve accomplished something here to be proud of. Whether we were interviewed or not, ours is a claim of service that few professionals in the State of New York or elsewhere have positioned themselves to share in the way we have.
the practice of sitting with a subject for an hour and giving them a hundred percent focused attention seemed somewhat daunting to a number of friends and colleagues. So much so in fact that many declined our repeated invitations to speak with us as they left careers or retired from full employment. Despite all assurances that we were not about investigative journalism or invading privacy, they deferred. Now, twenty years after we began, some are saying they may be ready. “Better late than never” we say. However, to all among you who were willing to share not only your classroom experiences and personal stories, but precious memories from your lives along with your fondest hopes for the future, we say “Thanks”. Thanks for allowing us to continue the process by paying it forward as we share these interviews with the Brentwood community and countless professionals and researchers near and far. Through an acceptance of ROBS offer of collaboration with Archivist Dr. Geri Solomon and The Long Island Studies Institute
at Hofstra University our History Project lives on in academia as well as in the collection of the Brentwood Public Library, thanks to Director, Thomas A. Tarantowicz.
Enjoy unlimited visits to www.robsny.org
where you can watch and listen to segments from featured Interviews in the ROBS History Project
Section on our Announcements Page
each month. Return here to listen and learn again and again.
|THIS MONTH'S FEATURED HISTORY PROJECT INTERVIEWS:
Joseph Purcell came to Brentwood in 1958 and retired in 1992. He taught English and Spanish in Ross High School. Moving to Library Science eventually, he became Brentwood HS Central Librarian and retired after 34 years of service to the District.
Here he speaks of the early days, recalling Fred Weaver, Marian Young, Dr. Ray Sheele, Dr Lenny Sachs, Bernie Steeber, Mrs. Cairns, Bill Greany, Frank Conte and Ester Besser, Joseph Dionne, Jack Finan, Ray Fournier, Vincent Presno and a Brentwood student Jeff Raskin, of Apple (Macintoch) fame, and others.
He shares his initial impressions of Brentwood and offers sage advice to new teachers – “get rid of your idealism as soon as possible”, which may not mean what you think it does.
Franklin D. Spencer
Franklin D. Spencer, the youngest of nine, came from humble beginnings to dedicate 35 years to the Brentwood School District. He was hired by Dr Eugene Hoyt and Fred Weaver for whom he worked as a dedicated and demanding Science Teacher prior to going from the classroom to Attendance and Special Services and immersing him in the Community.
He began his career alongside Stan Yankowski, Social Studies teacher, who was soon promoted to building Principal – a move that Frank saw coming. He had left the Air Force as a Master Sergeant with considerable pre-med experience and applied to teach science in Brentwood on the advice of his sister Cora, who accurately thought he might like it. Brentwood at that time had never had an African American Science Teacher and the community was still very much racially divided. Finding a place to live in Brentwood proved challenging. Initially, he was under considerable scrutiny by Mr. Weaver, who told him, “I’m going to be watching you”.
Speaking with great affection about Fred Weaver, Frank tells how he retired in 1995 with 356 unused sick days and much pride in his accomplishments. A well attended retirement party was a capacity crowd of over 150 close friends and family members. He speaks with great personal satisfaction at how they were equally divided between family, and white and black friends and colleagues.