January 23, 2021
In the year we entered World War II, Rutherford was a small residential town, of the kind that later came to be called a bedroom community, in the Greater New York area. Like many eighteenth and Nineteenth Century towns in Europe and Great Britain, the focal point of Rutherford’s map was the railroad station.
Five main streets radiated out, and still do, from the square centered on the northeast edge of town and named Station Square for the red brick railroad station that dominates it.
Union Avenue led to the northwest to Rutherford’s western boundary at the Passaic River. Park Avenue, the main shopping street, pointed to the southwest, ending at Lyndhurst, the next town in that direction, the border now marked by Route 3.
Orient Way led to the southsouthwest, again entering Lyndhurst at what is now Route 3, built at the end of the war. Erie Avenue, parallels the railroad track to southeast towards Hoboken and the ferries to Manhattan.
The length of the radiating streets in Rutherford is about a mile, with the longest diameter of town being less than a mile and a half. The town is roughly diamond-shaped, with a long axis of less than two and a half miles and a short axis about a mile long.
270 Feronia Way lies near the southern tip of the diamond and, as best I can tell from the Google Earth renditions, (when did Google Earth stop using photographs?) is the same house in which I lived during the war years, a very modest three-bedroom, brown-shingled home, that at the time had an asphalt driveway but no garage.
In the 40’s Rutherford’s population was roughly 19,000, and since there is no way to increase the space in a town that is entirely circumscribed, it is likely to have about the same number of single-family homes and the same population now.
There were some areas of town where the houses and yards were larger than on Feronia way, but our streets were as wide as any. One of the prominent functions of the borough government was fulfilled by the Shade Tree Commission. Whose sole responsibility it was, to assure that large and well-tended sycamores, horse chestnuts, maples and oaks lined all its streets, with at least one and often two trees in front of each house. It was, and is, a beautiful town partly because its residents have always cared for it lovingly.
Rutherford was one of the first stops on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad after leaving the ferry terminal from New York, and was desirable as one of the quickest commutes from the City, because between NYC and Rutherford was the complex river delta of the Passaic and Hackensack rivers and a wide cattail swamp known in those parts as “the meadows”. Therefore, there were no other towns, stations or stops between the terminal for the New York ferries and Rutherford. The term wasn’t applied at the time, but Rutherford was actually a disconnected suburb of the City, and closer to Times Square than many of the bedroom communities on the New York side of the Hudson River.
I have provided this level of detail because of what comes next, which is not in any way a demographic study, but is instead a personal story that may provide a glimpse into how things stood in such towns before today’s historical revisionists began to pretend that they invented the idea of “diversity”, without which we who came before would have continued to wallow in our ignorance and narrow-mindedness.
The reason that I write is that I woke up this morning thinking about my early playmates. My fragmented recollections seemed to move out concentrically from my own home at 270 Feronia Way, in the same way, perhaps, that my then ability to get around, first on a tricycle and later on a bicycle, expanded with my age, to places further and further afield.
My first playmates were simply the kids on my own block, later including schoolmates who lived a little further away.
Going down the three porch steps to play in my front yard I often found picture-pretty Kathy Conlyn in the yard next door to the right. A couple of years older than me, she played out front with her friends. Attracted by their laughter I’d start in their direction until, out from behind their big square Buick her younger brother Bobby would loom, a contemptuous smile on his face, to block my way. A year older and bigger than me, he would stride up and, after uttering a few provocations and threats, he would punch me in the chest knocking me flat on my back in the dust of the yard. It went on that way for a long time. Kathy inviting me with a smile and Bobby knocking me down and running off.
If this seems a little too organized for kids still sporting their baby teeth, it turns out it was. I later learned from my mother that, over time, she had observed Mrs. Conlyn, Joyce, send Bobby out to knock me down day after day, watching the whole encounter peeping through her front curtains. Until the day I bloodied his nose and he fled crying. But that’s a story for another time.
On the other side of our house, to the north, were the Stefanatzs, a quiet, dark-haired young couple with an accent different from ours. I remember my mom being very excited one day because they had had a baby, who later became a playmate of my youngest brother, Lee. From the accent and the name I’m thinking now that they may have been from Austria.
Evans street teed into Feronia directly in front of our house. Across the intersection, on the corner just to the right a handsome young man of about 18, Rudy Nicolosi, who later changed his name to Nicholson, worked on his motorcycle at the curb. His folks had an accent which I eventually learned was Italian.
Next door to Rudy was his friend of about the same age, Roland (Roley) Stabe, whose parents were also European. Roley became a flier late in the war and afterward worked as a corporate pilot. Next down that side of the street was a kid three years older than me, Fred Zanka. He was fat, had a sullen pout, a bad complexion, and got picked on by the other kids. The one time we had an encounter I had ridden my trike into his driveway to see if I could play with him and some other kid in his back yard. I was small enough that I was confined to our back yard, but had thrown my trike over the low fence and climbed over after it to go exploring.
By way of declining to have me join them, Fred and the other kid stuffed me forcibly back onto my trike and pushed me so fast down the driveway that I couldn’t get my feet onto the pedals to slow down. It shot out into the street, straight into the rear wheels of a passing dirt-filled dump-truck. My tricycle and body were cartwheeled to the left by the spinning wheel and my head hit the concrete hard enough that the swelling later literally doubled its size and the street scraped all the skin off the left side of my face. Miraculously but barely still conscious, I managed to stand and stumble towards my house. Along with the pain and nausea, my perceptions were severely distorted. Fixated on making it to my front door, I watched my house grow tall and thin one moment and short and wide the next.
Taken to Passaic General Hospital in the back of a police car with the siren howling, over the course of some hours I was examined and my wounds cleaned and bandaged. It was finally pronounced that I was severely concussed but had suffered no skull or facial fractures. I remember that until they pried my left eye open they were unsure whether it was still there.
I never played with Freddie after that.
Three more houses down the other side of the block was Millard Kline and and the Kline family of redheads. Millard was a tall, thin kid and one of the guys with whom I played baseball in the street. His siblings were outside of our age range and I never knew any of them.
When I was ten or eleven I got with bored being the only kid around on Sunday morning. My mother read the bible every day and was a firm believer in a Christian god, but not a joiner, so we were not churchgoers. We would learn three decades later that she was descended from Dutch Reformed ancestors, religious refugees, Walloons, that had been members of the original group of 30 families contracted by the newly formed Dutch West Indies Company to colonize, in 1624, that which is now New York .
My dad’s dad, a first generation Irish-American electrician, had left the Catholic church after what he would only ever describe as, “I ran into a crooked priest”. Neither parent went to church except for weddings and funerals.
I told my mom I wanted to go to church with my friends and she said sure, go ahead. For the next two years I got up on Sundays, got dressed for church and went out on the front porch to wait, tagging along with whichever mate came along first. Except for Millard and his family, who, like the Conlyns were Catholic. Saying they had checked with their priest, the Klines told me that as a non-Catholic, their church would not allow me to attend casually. I specifically remember going to church with Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Christian Scientists, but there were others. Of course I wouldn’t have gone to synagogue because Saturday was movie day.
Back across my side of the street from the Klines, was George Bahue. Another playmate who was older than me. It turns out I was always more interested in what older kids were doing than kids who were exactly my age — or maybe it was just a matter of who was available.
Anyhow George was a handsome lad with dark curly hair. His mother was a beautiful black-haired American woman with a beaming smile and a great laugh, and his father was an older man, balding, with an interesting accent. George seemed a little afraid to disturb him, but his father was patient and kind with me the one time I was in their home. Though the same size as our little place, their house was filled with dark, polished furniture decorated with unusual objects and carpets covered with intricate designs. Their home contained the aromas of foods and spices I had never before experienced. George’s father, he explained, was from Syria. Bewildered, I was introduced to the idea that there were places in the world that were not like New Jersey, nor anywhere I had ever been.
Just over our low back fence on the street behind our house Lived the Buschels. Joey, a couple of years bigger than me, was always busy with one project or another. Taking care of the garden or their rabbits, or delivering newspapers, at which he allowed me to assist. His parents were Swiss, he explained when I asked about why they called him Choey and his sister June, Chooney. And he showed me is dad’s Swiss Army Rifle (a Vetterli 1870), from when he was in the Swiss citizen militia, carefully demonstrating how to open the bolt and make sure it was unloaded. But there had always been a loaded .22 or shotgun behind my grandmother’s kitchen door in the country, to drive off or kill any critters that came after her chickens. So before the age of five I knew about guns, how they sounded, what damage they could inflict if mishandled, and not to touch or explore them out of curiosity.
North of the Buschel house, after a vacant lot, was Paula Schlichting, an older woman, perhaps even a teen, whom I knew only to say hello to, though she and June Buschel were friends.
And to the south of the Buschels was Dante Fuglini, another pleasant and cheerful kid a little older than me. Dante himself had the slight accent of a first-generation immigrant.
The thing about the boys I played with that year was that after a few hours they would become bored with whatever we were up to and, I being the youngest and therefore the smallest of the litter, would begin to tease me or get a little mean. Before long they were pummeling me or wrestling me to the ground, knuckling my scalp with an “indian burn” and yelling, “D’ya give?, d’ya give??”
But I didn’t want to give up, so it often got a bit rougher until they drove me off and left me on my own for the rest of that day.
Years later my mother told me that she had once asked George Bahue, who seemed to her to be quite a nice kid, from whom she would not have expected bullying behavior: “Why do you boys pick on Denis? Why don’t you just not play with him if you don’t like him?”
“Oh, we like him fine Mrs. Franklin”, he responded.
“Well then why do you pick on him?, she asked, puzzled. George thought about it for a few seconds, then came up with his conclusion: “Because he can take it”.
The boy who became my best friend in sixth grade lived straight out our front door and down Evans Street one short block, on the corner of Highfield Lane. Richard Shere’s father Sam, was a Life Magazine staff photographer, and the man who took this picture you have all seen.
Richard’s mother, like the Buschels, was Swiss and spoke English with a heavy accent. Richard was smart and could easily remember years of baseball statistics, and statistics relating to hunting rifles and race cars, but had trouble with reading and was in danger of being left back from graduating to junior high, now called middle school. His parents promised me that if I would tutor him in reading, his dad would take us both to the next big sportsman’s show at Madison Square Garden. We were eleven and the war had just ended. We worked like hell, he was promoted, and we went to the exhibition as photographer’s assistants, carrying camera bags, having first had a tour and meeting the staff at the offices and photo labs of Life Magazine.
In the next house down the hill on Evans Street were two more of our playmates Donnie and Bobby Hayman, whose parents owned the local appliance store and had the first TV set in the neighborhood, several years before there was ever one in our house. I think the Haymans may have been Jewish, but I don’t know for sure because except for which direction families walked to attend religious services, if they did, it was irrelevant to us.
In the Spring we all played baseball in the street and in the Autumn, vacant-lot tackle football with whatever random shoulder pads and helmets some of us had managed to accumulate. In Winter, whenever there was snow on the streets, we went sledding down the hill on Highfield Lane, making the turn and continuing for a second block down Evans Street to Elycroft.
When we were old enough we went to the Rivioli to the Saturday matinee double feature, with a newsreel and cartoon, and were shocked when, after the war, the admission price went first from nine to eleven cents, and later to a quarter.
There was one other boy that I played with for a while, Willis Meyers. Willis lived in the corner house at Feronia and Nevins, a block and a half south of me. Some friends, I don’t remember who, took me to meet him when I was not much older than about six. Willis was tall and lanky, a few years older than the rest of us, and liked to play in the garage behind his house where he kept his comic books, games and toys. He was very inventive and dramatic, and he revealed, after I had gotten to know him a little better, that he particularly liked to act out the actions and dialog of comic book stories.
One day he invited me and another kid I didn’t know, to play an acting game he called “Dames”, where we were to pretend to be women, like Betty and Veronica in the Archie comics. I didn’t really grasp the odd idea and wasn’t very good at the little dramas and the speeches, but Willis could put on a sultry voice and the seductive mannerisms of a Veronica that made us giggle, if a little uncomfortably.
That day in the course of acting out a little story of his own invention, he took us to the loft of the garage where he continued to make up a narrative to match the action as he, as a “dame”, began to touch me sexually. Of course it felt pretty good, but even having not the vaguest idea of what was really going on, I was pretty sure he shouldn’t be touching my genitals. Making some excuse I soon left for home. I never told anyone about it and never went back there.
Until about 15 years later when, back home on a break from college or law school, and my parents having moved by that time to the other side of town, I took a nostalgic drive through the old neighborhood and, as I was leaving, decided to stop at the Meyers house, just on the chance Willis might be there. I was curios to ask him, retrospectively, his view of what he was doing the day he sexually assaulted a little kid.
When I went up the steps of the front porch and rang the bell, it was answered by his mother, the same disheveled and depressed-looking dark-haired woman I remembered, now going gray. From the look on her face, she had been prepared to send a salesman away, but when I asked if Willis happened to be at home she looked startled, then angry. “Willis killed himself two years ago”, she said flatly, and closed the door without another word.
As you may or may not have guessed, my question is this: Three Swiss immigrants, a family from eastern Europe, two Irish catholic families, a Syrian man, (maybe) a Jewish family two Italian families, an Austrian family, and a descendant of the very first Francophone colonists from Holland and Belgium. Plus a predatory young homosexual male pedophile. All living within two blocks of one another in a small Jersey town.
What could have been more diverse than that?