They were celebrating my second birthday, December 7, 1941, when the Japanese air force bombed Peal Harbor. The party was interrupted by the radio, and we stopped eating cake and took off our party hats. The U.S.A. entered the war. Daddy went to war as a sailor on a ship. Mommy and we two kids had to live alone on the second floor flat at Atlantic Avenue and 76th Street, in Queens. Daddy said he would come back after the war. A poster on the corner of Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini in caricature—like demons. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all be free.” A photo of me in the baby pen, beautiful white hair. My grandfather holding me up in his strong arms and white shirt. He also has white hair. He came from Naples and speaks Italian. We never saw our grandmother. We are Americans. My father in a sailor suit. My mother in a bathing suit, flat chested, the women were called flappers, that’s a 1920s picture, when she met my dad. Off to war. War bonds. Life at home the same, even without father, it’s not so different for us kids. We still have clothes and food.
My first memory: I learn to dress myself. I hid in my room and by myself I put on my short pants and was just about to put on my shirt when my mother walked in and caught me in the secret act. I burst out crying and threw myself on the bed. “What’s wrong?” “I was trying to dress myself by myself and you ruined it!” My mother said it was not ruined but it was good. Now I could dress by myself. But I thought it was ruined—my plan to come before them and surprise them. My sister teased me in front of them.
Seventy-sixth Street was a long block of row houses. Atlantic Avenue was a broad boulevard of speeding cars, so all the other avenues—75, 76, 77—branched off them and were the places of residents of the neighborhoods.
Seventy-sixth Street was our turf. We didn’t go to 77th St. or 75th St. You would be recognized as a stranger and maybe kids, even little kids of our same age, would challenge us in some way, shoot pea shooters at us, or you might get into a fight. These were somewhat rough neighborhoods. They were mixed. There were no black races. There were Italians, like us. The Puerto Rican immigration hadn’t started yet, so it was lower-middle-class workers, some of them with ordinary American names like Adams and Hall, all lower-middle-class workers.
The streets were noisy, and the kids tended to be rowdy. The buildings were four stories high, and there would always be children playing in the street, making noise. Noise came out of the apartments, too, adults shouting. There weren’t many trees along the avenue, but curbs and macadam and sidewalk. Kids of all ages would play after school. Very little kids would be pushed around by their mothers in their perambulators, older kids would be playing games on their own. They played all kinds of games like throwing balls against stoops, playing stickball, where you threw a ball against a stoop and hit it, and a game called “War,” where chalk circles were made on the sidewalk, and inside, the name of a country was chalked, like Japan, U.S.A., England, etc. A boy or girl would then take a pink Spalding rubber ball and throw it down as hard as he could on a designated country and yell out, “I declare war on—Japan!,” and then throw the ball down as hard as they could into the circle. The ball would bounce high into the air, and the boy or girl who was previously designated to be “Japan” would have to run after the ball and catch it wherever it bounced. And then when they got it, it would be their turn to declare war on the others, and so it was, they ran around and around all day declaring war, just like the actual wars that were raging on in the real world.
We also played a game called Ringaleevio, a glorified version of hide-and-seek.
I never provoked any fights. I was a short, skinny kid. But somehow once my father sent boxing gloves home from the Pacific, and so I had these two pairs of boxing gloves. The other kids said I should engage in a boxing match with someone in the neighborhood. I went along with it and put on the boxing gloves and a pair of bathing shorts and a bathrobe. Another boy my size was picked to go outside by his house, and we would have a boxing fight of a number of rounds. I came out of our house and was cheered by some of the children, and we went over to the other boy’s house, and they cheered and waited for him to come out. It was really quite a bit of acting. We were acting like a big-event fight was to take place. I must have been in complete illusion, acting as if I was a fighter. I was mostly enamored by the color of the gloves and the fact that my father had sent them all the way from the Pacific, wanting me to put them on and fight. And lo and behold, the other boy did not come out of his house. I was declared winner and no one else came, so I ran home as the champion. I went back into the house and with great relief put the gloves away.
On another occasion, however, I could not avoid a fight. Some of the teenagers were hanging around way down at the end of 76th St. To amuse themselves, they asked two very little kids, namely myself and another kid, to have a fight. We were tiny kids, only about three years old. They were like lords and we were to be like some slaves or jesters and have a fight in front of them. We did not want to fight, and we told them so.
“You must fight,” they said, “or we’ll make you fight!” We were just like the scum of the earth and they wanted us to grovel in the dust before them, and so we had to do it. They called us out before them while they sat on the upper steps of the house, and other children gathered around. And yet, by their tyranny and insistence, they pushed us together and told us, “You must fight!” And so out of terror and complete subjugation we two little boys threw ourselves at each other and began to wrestle, mostly out of terrific fear. I fought with all my strength, and the other boy did also. We grabbed at the neck and the shoulders and tried different holds and tried to knock the other boy to the ground. We punched, pulled at ears, rolled around and around on the ground, and did anything we could, although we did not know any bona fide wrestling holds. We pinched and screamed and scratched. We did not want to lose in front of the other boys, who pressed closer and closer to see which of the two little creeping cowards would win. I exerted all my will power. It wasn’t so much muscle but fear and desire, and finally, after various scuffling and holdings, I pushed the other boy to the ground. We rolled on the ground and the children cheered to see the action and the suffering as our heads were getting knocked and bruised. Finally, I pinned the other boy down and he said, “I give up.”
“You win!” said one of the lords of the gang. I got up, full of scratches and fear, and ran away from the pack, all the way back to the end of the street to my mother, feeling more like a loser if anything, rather than a winner. But the fact is, I had been forced into a fight, and I had won.