My Life As I Remember It- Ken Juers

The following is a transcript of a writing that my sisters & I found, as we went thru Dad’s things, after he passed away in November, 2009.

 

“My Life, As I Remember It”

By Kenneth Robert Juers, at age 66.3
February 23, 2004

Outline:
* Earliest memories
* Growing up in the Bronx
* Schooling
* The Navy
* Marriage
* More marriages

 

The earliest memories I have were of the tenement we lived in the South Bronx. The memories are vague, but then so are my memories of yesterday.  I should have written my memoirs when I was ten.

We lived on the third floor of 770 East 165th Street. I remember a fire escape outside the living room window, from which you could watch the kids playing in the street. In the hot summers, we would sometimes sleep on the fire escape. I remember being walked in a carriage or stroller down the street by my mother, Helen.

One event that sticks in my mind to this day is that of a large dog coming up and licking my face. I was sure the dog wanted to eat me & I was terrified. The dog’s name was “Mustard” and belonged to a neighbor next door.  We had neighbors in the tenement next door that were friends of my mom & dad.  They were the Gaglianos (Al & Rose).

The buildings were narrower in the back than in the front, to provide some windows on the sides of the buildings. They were almost touching in the front, so if they weren’t narrowed toward the back, the apartments could only have windows in the front and back.  Our kitchen window faced the Gagliano’s kitchen window in the next building.  To avoid going down three flights of stairs and back up three flights of stairs next door, my mother would put an ironing board across from windowsill to Rose Gagliano’s windowsill, and crawl across, three floors above the alley below. She would then coax my brother Harry to follow her.  Obviously, the distance wasn’t far, if an ironing board would span it, but it scared the hell out of Harry. And you wonder where Michael Jackson got the idea to dangle his baby from a balcony? My mother, the trendsetter.

Around the block from the one we lived on was 163rd Street, a street with a steep hill and I remember wrought iron fencing the full length of the street.  As a child, I could envision not being able to make it to the top of the hill and sliding down backwards. I guess I had a lot of fears as a child. My brother Harry used to ride a tricycle by putting his left foot on the step at the back of the trike, and pushing with his right foot on the sidewalk.  He actually, though not intentionally, wound up unable to control the trike on that hill and had to hold on for dear life as he hurtled down toward Third Avenue and across through heavy traffic. He was spotted by my mother’s sister, Claudia, while she was on her way to visit my mother, and she ratted him out. He says today he might have been better being crushed by a truck than having to face Mom. I don’t remember a great deal about my brothers while in that tenement. I think Harry spent a lot of time in the hospital with polio, or away at camp. My sister, Helen, had died the year I was born, just two weeks before her 4th birthday, and 5 months before I was born at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. She died of measles and pneumonia.

Children died of such things in those days & were crippled by things like polio. Thank God for the Jonas Salks of the world, who find cures, so no other children have to suffer the crippling effects of polio.

My parents were air raid wardens during the Second World War to enforce blackouts and such.

Later in my childhood, around 1942, we moved to Clason Point in the Bronx.

The first place we lived was 232 Newman Avenue. I have no memories of that home at all.

The next address was 333 Stevens Avenue, across the street from Pugsley Creek.  We lived in a two-family house on the downstairs, while a woman & her daughters lived upstairs; I don’t remember their name.  By this time, brothers Jerry and Roy were born to my prolific parents, and thus there were five sons and my parents had already lost a daughter.  The lady upstairs had five daughters and had lost a son. Coincidences abound through the years with this family. A case in point; When all six sons were alive, they alternated from the eldest down, dark hair/brown eyes, then blonde hair /blue eyes, and the features repeated alternately.  Also, all the dark-haired sons (# I, 3, & 5) were right-handed, and sons #s 2, 4 & 6 were all left-handed. But I digress.

Back at 333 Stevens Ave. Up the block were the Morgan’s who had a couple of fierce Dobermans, but they also had a television, so one had to weigh the fear of those dogs against the opportunity to watch Milton Berle on Tuesday nights; Not to mention Mrs. Morgan a l so made home-made doughnuts, which were delicious.  We never got anything like that at home. My brother Don and I would go there (at Mrs. Morgan’s invitation) every Tuesday night. TVs were all black and white then, of course, and generally had a magnifier in front of them, to make the screen look larger.  George and Ann Morgan also had a property upstate in New York (in Ellenville), which they would bring us to on occasion, where the whole family would vacation.  I say,” they would bring us to”, my parents never owned a car, and neither ever had a Driver’s License. I remember the Morgan’s had a lake on their property, and we would swim and fish, and it was like heaven to be away from the congestion of the city. That’s probably the reason Don and his wife Jean, in later years, moved their family to upstate.  Don and Jean’s decision, to make that move, was probably the smartest [decision] any of us ever made.

Harry was away at the hospital or at camp a lot of the time, so there wasn’t a lot of contact with him. I remember he would come home and we would go out to the swamps surrounding Pugslie Creek with his crutches and pretend they were machine guns and shoot down imaginary Japanese planes… World War II was still going on at the time. We would lay in the weeds across from Castle Hill Pool and long to belong to such an elegant club as we shot down the enemy that threatened its very existence.

Later in years we learned to sneak in to the pool, over the barbed wire fence.  Of course, we were never dressed in the attire someone belonging to the pool membership would have, and so we were spotted soon after sneaking in and would have to make a break for the fences again, this time to escape over the fence.  Got many a cut from those barbed wire tops.

A few years later, a pool club named Shore Haven was built further down Soundview Ave (the main road in Clason Point) and we moved our “sneaking in” to the newer, [classier] club. After all, if one is going to sneak into a club, it may as well be the best.  And Shore Haven was.  It was beautiful and looked over Jamaica Bay, towards La Guardia Airport.

There had been ferries that traveled across Jamaica Bay, from the tip of Soundview Avenue but shortly after we moved there, the ferries stopped their runs, and the ferry docks became a place where we would play. One night, a plane coming out of La Guardia crashed into the bay and, debris floated all the way over to the ferry docks.  We could see luggage and pieces of the plane… I know it was a terrible tragedy, but at the time, as a boy, it was exciting.  Kind of like the movie, “Stand By Me”; a rite of passage, so to speak.

Don and I used to sneak into Shore Haven Beach Club, but had the same problem as in Castle Hill. We just looked too poor to belong to such a club. Harry would finagle other ways to get in and was rarely, if ever, bothered (maybe because of the polio); but more likely, [it was] because he was handsome and a great diver.  He would dive off the high 10-foot board, and do all kinds of dives.  Don and I took to walking.  We would walk across the Bronx and across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey.  One time, we walked seven miles into New Jersey.  Our feet hurt like hell by the time we made it home.  I complained to Mom about my ankles being hurt and not wanting to go to school, but she would have none of that.

On one of the trips Don and I made, we carried a length of old wash line, with the intention of climbing down the Palisade Mountain at the Jersey side of the G.W. Bridge.  Don’s vision wasn’t very good, and neither of us was able to gauge the height of the face of the mountain. We tied the wash line to a tree, and Don started down.  There was a sloped section that was treed, and then it gave way to a sheer face of rock.  A Park Ranger was way below and was waving and shouting at us. We couldn’t hear him but we saw him stop a car and point at us for the driver and knew we would be in trouble.  We aborted the climb and walked into Palisades Park, which eventually wound its way down to where the Ranger was. He was nice, but angry, and showed us where we were. It was at least 200 feet straight up sheer rock.  And us with a 25 foot wash line our mother had discarded because it broke under the load of laundry.  Don needed glasses and we both needed brains.  I think that was the last time we walked to New Jersey.

Our next adventure took us up to New Rochelle, another walking trip. I remember one time, Don and I were walking across a railroad bridge and the trestle was very close to the tracks.  As it was, the walkway was only about two-feet wide, [so] we had to walk single file.  There was a curve at the other end of the bridge, and I wasn’t comfortable with that.  I said to Don, “What if we have to step onto the tracks to get around the trestle, and a train comes around the curve”?   Don was fearless.  He said not to worry; we would hear the train coming. Sure enough, a huge freight train came around the bend and started blasting his horn.  We were in the middle of the bridge at the time, and fortunately, had not reached the trestle.  The bridge had a two-rail fence and went across some creek.  It was low tide and there was only mud below.  We couldn’t jump, so Don shoved me against the rail and put his arms around me with his body between mine and the oncoming train and squeezed me against the rail.  The train passed within a foot of his back as he pressed me against he rail.  I felt very safe with him, although I had marks in my legs and stomach from those rails for hours, from Don pushing so hard. We continued our walk, and continued to have walks after that.

We used to swim in Pugsley creek, even though it was polluted as one could imagine. It was the reason we would continue to try to sneak in to the Beach clubs.  Just across from where we lived at 333 Stevens Avenue, was Dawn’s Boatyard.  They built custom yachts at their facility, and there was also an old rotted barge on blocks alongside of their property.  Swashbuckling movies were very popular at the time, and we would make swords from car antennas and from wood that we found at Dawn’s. We would then defend the Ship (the barge) against pirates. It was great fun dueling like Errol Flynn with the other kids in the area.  I didn’t learn to swim until I was at least twelve. I would try in the creek at a beach by Dawn’s, but the water was so bad.  Human waste floated like seaweed so you had to swim with your eyes open, even under the dirty water, to make sure you didn’t bump into any feces.  No wonder I rarely got sick as an adult.  After being exposed to that, I became immune, as did all my brothers.  Robert Klein used to do a stand up bit, where he described fishing in the East River. He said anything you caught in that river would come out of the water and kick your ass… If it could live in that water, no hook was going to bother it. The East River led into the same body of water as Pugsley Creek.

My dad bought a house for $700 on a rented piece of property called Murray Court.  Murray Court ran between Bolton Avenue and Soundview Avenue, and there were about 8 such bungalows in the court.  My brother Harry says there were two bedrooms, but I only remember there being one.  We used more than one of the rooms as a bedroom, but I think we were using what was designed as a dining room as a bedroom. In any case, there wasn’t much room… but it was home; our own.  My dad could build or fix anything, and he started on the house right away.  George Morgan helped him as well.  

The house was white shingle siding and green trim.  Dad built a white picket fence. Most of the bungalows in the court were within four or five feet of each other, but ours had a front yard the size of another bungalow, as though one had been removed and the space annexed.  Don’t know why, but only us, and Mrs. Gruenwald across the court had yards.  Hers was heavily overgrown and dad had made ours the envy of the neighborhood.  The Murrays lived across the street, in what (to us) was a palace. It was to them we paid our $19.00 rent, sometimes even on time. Mr. Murray wanted to hire dad to do his backyard, but I don’t remember if he ever did.  I had a crush on Frances “Sugar” Murray.  I was in awe of how pretty she was and how well dressed.  We actually went to a movie at the “Beach” movie theater one Saturday, and I ‘m sure her parents didn’t like it a bit… I think she had a bit of a thing for me as well, but we were just from too disparate backgrounds.  I ran into her sometime later in the shoe department in Sears in Huntington, Long Island.  I was selling shoes and she was buying for her child.

But again, I digress… back to 5 Murray Court…

It was nice for all of us, while Dad was alive, to create and repair. But it was constant maintenance for him, in addition to going to work.  Dad worked hard as a “tin knocker” sheet-metal worker; hard work and not great pay, until one became a journeyman in the union.

Dad was given two weeks to live, when he was thirty, because of a heart condition known as IHSS (Idiopathic hypertrophic sub-aortic stenos); a disease controllable today with meds (Harry has it), but not [back] then.  Dad lived another ten years, and continued to punch out the kids.  Apparently, IHSS doesn’t affect that!  I may have mentioned earlier, Mom had 10 pregnancies, delivering seven, including Bob who was born four months after dad died in 1948… Barefoot, in winter, and pregnant in summer seemed to be the credo by which they lived.  Oh well, they were Catholics, after all…

When dad died, the house just began to deteriorate quickly. The bungalow was just on pilings and there was no foundation.  After a rainy season, the pilings began to sink into the dirt below, and the floor of the house actually separated from the walls.  Rats would enter and take up residency in the attic, where I slept on a mattress on the floor. I would try to stay awake as long as I could, listening to the radio with the background sound of the rats running around in the attic. I just prayed to be able to fall asleep quickly.  Don slept up there as well, and at times, Harry [did, too].

There was only one bathroom, as one might imagine, and so if I had to go downstairs to pee, I would turn on the light at the bottom of the stairs, and surprise at least a dozen rats. They would scurry and I would go about my business. I still don’t abide rats.  Later, when I was promoted to the downstairs (don’t exactly know why that came about), I was sleeping one night and got up to go to the bathroom without turning on any lights.  As I was peeing there appeared what I thought was an alligator in the toilet.  Remember, the lights were out. I remember screaming that there was an alligator in the toilet, and Harry came in, turned the light on and saw a rat, the size of a Buick, swimming in the bowl. He killed it with an ice chopper we had outside to clear the walk…

In the summer, we still would go to Pugsley Creek to swim… or in my case, dog-paddle.

Some of us had built a raft from downed trees and logs.  The creek fed into Jamaica Bay as I mentioned earlier.  When the tide came in, some of the kids could swim from one side to the other. When the tide went out, however, there was a strong current; and when the tide was out, the creek was simply mud… very soft, and very dangerous to attempt to traverse.

I had, by this time, developed a crush on a girl named Susie Kiernan.  She would come down there to swim as well. One day, she and I were playing on the raft, and the tide started to go out. I didn’t notice, what, with my eyes being filled with stars. The raft became uncontrollable because of its weight and the strong current.  Susie could swim, but she wouldn’t leave me alone on the raft.  The tide took us out into Jamaica Bay almost to the Whitestone Bridge.

Giant freighters were passing us.  I was pretty sure I was going to die, or at least end up in France.  Some sailboat guy saw the trouble we were in, and dropped his sail and threw us a line. He then used his motor to tow us back up the creek before there wasn’t any water left in it. Susie was my heroine.  My friend Joel Acovelli also had a crush on Susie, and though she dated both of us (if you could call it that in those days), she always liked another of our buddies… They later married and divorced. Susie was later caught in a fire, and disfigured horribly.

 

Unfortunately, that’s the end of this writing…

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