The picture in my mind’s eye now is of a summer evening when the trees were full of leaves and the sun was still high at seven o’clock but at an angle that threw shadows and tinted the light in a way that made it seem golden and streaked with some darker, richer hue. It was the time when the men from the neighborhood would be approaching on their walk from the train station and the end of their daily journey from the big city back to the south shore of Long Island.
The year would have been about 1951… and I would have been seven years old. Harry Truman was still in the White House. Dwight Eisenhower, who I would see passing by in an open convertible on Franklin Avenue later that year, had yet to begin his first campaign for the Presidency. The Korean War was being fought against funny-looking people in funnier-looking winter clothes on a distant peninsula that I would one day visit as my older self, arriving by parachute in the Han River Valley courtesy of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Malverne was a small town only a few miles beyond the New York City limits. Once known as Skunk’s Misery, it had become something of a commuter town, with tract houses – ours was built by an outfit called Krown – popping up like weeds on the old potato fields and vacant lots. The term “bedroom community” had not yet been invented. Most of the men in the neighborhood took the Long Island Rail Road to work in either Manhattan or Brooklyn. The walk to the town’s cottage-like train station covered about a mile and wound its way through some very pleasant residential streets before arriving at Hempstead Avenue, the main drag of the village. Their journeys started each day around 7 AM and they began to return after 6 PM. My father took the same train most nights… which got him home at about 7 o’clock in the evening. In the summer, it was the prettiest time of the day.
It is funny how our memories tint our visual recollection reels. These evenings for me are literally “golden”. They glow in retrospect like images in amber.
We children would begin to gather, one by one, as the time approached and talk to each other and play a bit but as the time got closer, we would become more silent and begin to look to the far corner of the street, two blocks away, waiting for the first strolling figure to appear. Then, as each of the fathers got closer, we would peel off like happy puppies, running to close the distance, anxious for the welcoming hug and the paternal grin of affection that came with it.
My own father’s walk was so unmistakable that I could pick him out at a great distance. No sooner would he turn into the far end of Ambrose Avenue than I would recognize that distinctive long-legged stride, the straight back, the folded World Telegram and Sun in his right hand, swinging in cadence. The men still wore hats in those days although, in the summer, my father would often go hatless.
There were many newspapers in New York in those days: in the mornings, the Daily News and The Mirror, The Times and The Herald Tribune; in the afternoons, the World Telegram and Sun, The Journal American and the Post. Like General Motors cars, the papers identified their readers. My father would fold his paper in half along its vertical axis and then in half again across the horizontal. This made it easy for him to focus on a quarter of a page of print at a time in tight places like subway cars (standing up) and in crowded three person seats on sweltering Long Island Rail Road cars. He had a way of navigating from page to page within this scheme that I was never able to imitate successfully but he handled it like Harry Houdini or The Great Blackstone.
When he came into the house, he had a standard routine that I’d memorized. He’d go to the high dresser in his bedroom, empty his pocket change onto its surface, hang up his suit jacket and remove his tie. Then he’d roll up his shirtsleeves to just below the elbows and make himself a scotch on the rocks and make my mother a Daiquiri or a Whiskey Sour. Then, the two of them would discuss their day together – his at Eastern Airlines – while I went on about my kid business happily, knowing that the planet had settled firmly into its prescribed evening orbit.
That was all sixty-seven years ago now. (Just for perspective, sixty-seven years before that summer, it was 1884, Chester Arthur was in the White House, and Mark Twain had just published Huckleberry Finn.)
Eastern Airlines, like Dad and Mom, is gone now… as are Gerry Swindell and Dick Eiland and Captain Eddie… and neighbors like Ed and Jane Block, the Kanes, the Connors and Emil Schreiber… and God knows who else. But Malverne is largely the same. The trees are older and bigger, the summer wind still turns the leaves, showing their pale undersides in the glow of twilight, the sprinklers still murmur, the cicadas chatter… and somewhere, along the sidewalks, the ghosts of phantom children await another arrival.