Please be advised that this column is a mild departure from the fond reminiscences you loyal readers have come to love and enjoy. This was written with thoughts about the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Celebration Parade. Then and now, I am disappointed with that decision. Never was it envisioned that hordes of party-goers would descend upon our fair City, spawning vandalism, decadence, and debauchery that would lead to the demise of our Parade. From my point of view this situation merits further examination.
One of Willow Terrace’s most renown families, the Cunnings, were instrumental in bringing about this fine display of Irish pride. They were at the forefront of fund raising and organization. Other community minded groups gladly joined in to share in the fun of the celebration. Many often joked that the Cunnings could provide a parade by themselves by just walking down Washington Street.
In the early days, when the parade was completed, the contingents and spectators alike would visit the local establishments to raise a glass and maybe even be entertained with songs from the Old Sod. It was a family affair. Yet the Mayor and powers to be have cancelled our celebration. One could argue that the lines in front of the Cake Boss have been disruptive to the community as well. There are plenty other irksome activities such as Santa Con and the shenanigans of Lepre Con which continue on their merry way. Then we are offered some half hearted alternative such as the Irish Cultural Celebration, as some sort of compromise, but I say “No Thanks”.
Being of Irish descent, I understand what it means to suffer in silence. I also know what it means to rise up in revolt with our backs to the wall. We are a people of warriors and poets. All I can do is lead my own imaginary “rebellion” with my readers.
All interested parties will assemble in front of the Elks Lodge #74. Our own Vinny Wasserman, dressed in full regalia of kilts and feathered Shako, will take command of the pipes and drums providing the cadence for the march to City Hall. Any of all of the Cunning family may lead the division, since they have the top hats and attire from previous outings. To make an indelible statement there will be a rider less horse with the boots inverted into the stirrups, reminiscent of a prior Memorial Day appearance honoring our absent brother Jerry Smith. That was quite a sight. There will be a banner draped over the steed stating “NO IRISH NEED APPLY FOR A PARADE PERMIT”. It would not be a parade without the Police, Firemen, DPW, or the Elks. In the spirit of solidarity, members of St. Ann’s and Madonna Di Marti will carry a statue of St Patrick, since they are the most experienced with transportation of the Blessed. Black armbands adorned with green shamrocks will be available to the marchers. Perhaps upon arrival a volunteer will step forward to have their bottom painted green as tradition dictates. To be sure, we will wave to the public, disperse in an orderly fashion, and invite all back to our Lodge for some Irish hospitality. Hoboken’s Honorary Irishman of Any Year, Jimmy Farina, will whip up his magically delicious Irish coffee, soda bread, and even St Joseph’s zeppoles drizzled with green icing.
Sometimes the City of Hoboken is the victim of its own success, We have a tradition of being on the edge of coolness. No matter, the Irish and their friends will INDEED celebrate our heritage with the charm and good humor which is the better part of our nature. May you have warm words on a cold night, and may the Good Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
One of the many added attractions attributed to the Hoboken YMCA back in the day was its summer time program at the beautiful Camp Tamaqua – a faraway wilderness site located somewhere near the Bear Mountain, a kid’s bucolic retreat that has inspired many tall tales and folklore. I will leave it up to the readers to decide for themselves the truth of which I relay.
We of the Y had a very competitive and successful swim team. Regular practice prepared us for meets during most of the winter months against the various YMCA’s in New Jersey. On one occasion, we had the opportunity to compete in an outdoors meet all the way up at the hallowed Camp Tamaqua!
Our athletic director, coach, and at that time (one time) camp director Mike Granelli extended an invitation to his Y swimmers to come on up to the Camp for a special meet. Mike was and is a consummate, life-long gym rat. To flash forward to one of Mr. Granelli’s many accomplishments, he coached St Peter’s College women’s basketball to a Final Four. He was involved in every sport imaginable- including soccer, softball, swimming, and even dodge ball. Mike had an eye for talent, a high regard for the enforcement of disciple, and the ability to place the best and the worst players in positions so to make them shine. More importantly, he had that eternal yen for the thrill of victory.
The van driver and unofficial captain for this mission was Kevin Kiely. Kevin was a terrific swimmer in his own right and was a devilish tormentor of his younger team mates. It was all in good fun, but rest assured you would be embarrassed or pranked in some fashion. “Okay, you rejects, let’s load up and make sure you change into your suits on the way up to camp. The girls up front need a good laugh!” peppered his welcoming remarks. Of course, the prettier sisters on the trip were sitting up front with him while a dozen of us were packed like sardines or migrant workers in the back of this panel van.
The usual suspects were present: the brothers Kiem, Murphy, and Nisler. Ronny G, Lonnie Boy, and Pooch Weyouche. At least two Dukes (myself and Marty Nathan) rounded out the field. With no more than a swimsuit and a towel a piece, off we went to the mountains.
Upon our arrival, Mr. Granelli greeted us and gave us each an official Camp Tamaqua white tee shirt, with a prominent red Indian chief emblazoned on the front. Then it was time for instructions. “Remember, you guys are campers. Right? Got it? And you might even be staying here over night!” Now this was a complete surprise. We’d had no idea this treat was a possibility.
Mike continued, “We are swimming against all the camps on the lake and we want to win. BUT no one has to know you just came up today.” We learned the lesson of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, long before the term became popular. It’s no wonder, since we of the Born and Raised have a natural talent for deception, as if it was part of our DNA.
The meet was held at Camp Ma-He-Too. (I remember that name from one of our camp songs,”Met a Guy from Ma-He-Too, I beat him till he was black and blue.” Pneumatics always improve your memory.) In any case, our pre-Olympic swimmers were locked and loaded and ready to go. By, I’d say, the third event the other camp directors were swarming around Mike Granelli, protesting that he stacked the team with ringers, for we were sweeping every race right off the get-go. But Mike had an easy smile and years of experience working refs and umps, so he had no problem explaining how his superior staff of instructors made these kids such good swimmers. He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge even if you lived in Brooklyn.
It was over before it started. Our team won just about every event. It was merciless. We were met back at Camp Tamaqua with a hero’s welcome. There was a free lunch in the mess hall and we could take part in all of the fun that the camp had to offer. We were so excited to try out archery, canoes, and even more swimming. Our camp director told us that he was calling all of our families to explain that we were all staying overnight and that we would be returning tomorrow. We were over the moon with joy.
That evening all the regular campers were sent to the other side of the lake for a sleep-over while we proud champions enjoyed a movie night complete with ice cream and snacks. Then we were reserved a cabin of our own. We felt like we were in Sargent Bilko’s army. There was a radio and stacks of comic books. Most of us had never been away from home, so we were feeling really BIG. We weren’t scared with tales of bears or of blood thirsty renegade Indians that reportedly still roamed these fabled woods; but as street wise kids, you never know what situations you might encounter. The older guys assigned the bunks, and we settled in for whatever would come.
It could have been well after midnight. The lights in our bunkhouse were still on. I could not have been happier reading about the Adventures of Superman and the exploits of the Uncanny X-Men. Then there came a mood shift, a disturbance in the force if you will. The scraping sound of a metal foot locker being dragged out from under a cot disrupted the quiet enjoyment of the evening. The voice of temptation rang out: “Hey look, it’s open. There’s Ring-Dings and candy! Let’s have cake!” Somewhere out of the crowd came the mixed responses of “It’s not ours!” “Too Bad!” and “Who will know?” As for myself, I didn’t want in, but peer pressure can be extreme. “Everybody eats the cake”. With those incriminating words, our enchanted cabin in the woods transformed into Stalag 17.
Now morning has broken, we quickly depart our temporary lodgings to head to the mess hall. The real campers are double-timing their return. No sooner than we are but a few yard away, the bellowing cry of “MY LOCKERS BEEN ROBBED, AND THEY TOOK THE RING DINGS” resounds. You know the feeling when your blood runs cold? Consider it to be communal.
Needless to say, bad news travels fast, and between a second mouthful of oatmeal, we are called on the proverbial carpet. Here we are, champions all, lined up before the all-knowing, all-seeing Mike Granelli. He knows who did what, without even having being present. He had the ability to look you straight in the eye and fathom the story before it left your mouth. But, as the reader must know, squealing is out of the question. There would be a beating by the guilty and no merit extended by the authorities for honestly. Mike already knows that too. Nonetheless the formality and facade of the proceedings begin. “Didn’t you have ice cream? Candy? A movie? Got to stay over at camp. Who Stole the Cake? ”
Dirty looks are exchanged between all involved parties. The response of “It wasn’t me!” doesn’t cut it. It’s the step-sister of tattling. The verdict is handed down in moments.
“Today there will be no activities, you have to police the campgrounds – mess hall, latrines, rec hall, everywhere.” (Police? What do we have to do? Aren’t we under arrest already?) “Now all of you, get going, finish breakfast and clean up the camp.”
So, here we are, the fallen, picking up garbage, raking rocks, disinfecting toilets, and the like. What a raw deal. We take our punishment, as well as the sneaky punches from our ring leader Pooch, for even thinking about giving him up (which we didn’t). Some of us are taken aside and given the sage observation of Marty “Duke” Nathan that Granelli made bundles of money off of us for our athleticism, bamboozling us kids for a quick score plus some free grunt labor. Marty didn’t say it quite that way, but he made his point. What would you expect from a city where even hotdog vendors took numbers?
So in this instance, no deed good or bad goes unpunished, a constant reminder that the Lessons of Life learned in the Mile Square City are among the harshest, even when it’s in Bear Mountain.
Staples, the super stationary store, begins its hilarious TV commercial with the popular Christmas tune “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The faces of happy parents leading their sullen children down the aisle of notebooks, buying all the school supplies these unhappy revelers could need. The jarring blast of a school yard alarm hastens the unavoidable goodbye to summer. Growing up in Hoboken, kids, especially my fellow students from parochial institutions, observed other such rituals at the start of every school year.
There was a time in this City when one could recite the roll call of Catholic schools akin to the litany of saints. We had St. Joseph, St. Francis, St Ann, St Peter & Paul and my alma mater, Our Lady of Grace. On the radio the Robert Hall jingle reminded us that “Bells are ringing, children singing, it’s back to Robert Hall again, where America goes for all their clothes.” However, for us Robert Hall would have to wait until Christmas because in August, it was mandatory to be outfitted with your new school uniform- exclusively available at Geismar’s (correct Hoboken pronunciation Guys-Meyers). OLG was sometimes referred to its street name of Old Lady’s Girdle. Its junior scholars proudly flew the color green. Appropriate for any St Patrick’s Day celebration, the boys had green pants, cardigan, and tie; the girls had plaid jumpers, tie and beanie. The OLG logo was emblazoned on most everything. Of course, the other schools did the same with theirs. New shoes from Harry’s was another must for back to school. Harry even gave out the coolest pencil boxes as a come-on. To complete the ensemble, we had to choose book bags and lunch boxes. For those items it was customary to venture to Two Guys from Harrison, located in North Bergen. I remember sporting an outer space metallic container complete with thermos. Eventually, it became smashed beyond recognition due to total disregard when jumping over or landing on it. From that point on, a brown bag would suffice.
Our pals in the public schools did not quite have the same rigid requirements. Sure, they went to Harry’s, but they purchased PF Flyers or Keds that they could wear to a class known as Physical Education. We had Catechism and the closest thing we had to Gym was running around playing freeze tag at lunch time. The girls enjoyed jumping rope, but we all would get together to play Red Rover or 1-2-3 Red Light. Along the same lines, we were trained to respond to a three bell or blast system. One blast meant to stop and stand still, the next bell was your signal to report to your line, and the third was to commence returning to your class. Obedience was one of the hallmarks of a Catholic school education. To this day, if someone honks a car horn, I catch myself stopping dead in my tracks.
The majority of our teachers were nuns; Sisters of Charity, not necessarily Mercy. They dressed like penguins in black and white. After Vatican II , blue and white became the fashion norm. As in every walk of life, there were sweethearts and dictators. For the most part, they were a no nonsense breed, but surprised us with their sense of humor. Many of them would be the steady turners in jump rope, or some would say the rosary for their favorite baseball team. In most classrooms, there was a picture of John F. Kennedy next to Jesus and Pope Paul. Current events were very much a part of our curriculum.
The Hoboken schools had names like Kealy and Wallace, and even Number 3 School. They seemed to be names fitting for a penitentiary. Yet, I assure you we understood discipline. Unless they were gridiron Mighty Mites or played in the Little League, the unfortunate public school kids that joined our ranks for Communion or Confirmation classes never truly understood what obedience was all about until they met Sister Agnes James. In her hands, The Baltimore Catechism doubled as instructional material and a handy head swatter. The stunned looks our new “classmates” had on their faces were priceless after they stumbled on the questions of theology and had each word “drummed” into their heads. Who says learning isn’t hands on? So as the new school year begins, we all could use a wing and a prayer, the former to sail back to the past and the latter for good measure.
Back in the day summertime always beckoned with that alluring call to the open road. Where did that enticement lead to if you were a kid living in Hoboken? We dreamed of exotic ports of call like Keansburg, Camp Tamaqua, or even our own version of Disneyland- Palisades Amusement Park. But, for a twelve year old, those destinations required some kind of adult supervision or approval. The only “resort” the parents of our hardy band of brothers from the YMCA would okay, without interminable whining or pleading, was the Old Mill Bathing Beach. The safety in numbers strategy always carried the day.
Plans were made a day or two in advance. There were no phone calls, just a commitment to have enough loot for the journey. We packed light bathing suits wrapped in towels, a brown bag lunch (which would be eaten before 9 o’clock), and a Spaldeen high bouncer to toss around for entertainment. Younger brothers were constantly in tow, and tolerated since we could not send these siblings back. Take them or stay home were the only options. At best maybe one of us had a watch, but somehow we all met at 8am near the corner of 13th and Washington on the dot. We’d engage in a half-assed headcount and become fast friends with anyone’s cousin or little brother we didn’t know. Done with the formalities, we set off.
By the end of the first block, Ronny G needed to stop at Larry’s Diner for a healthy breakfast- a bag of French fries with salt, pepper, and ketchup in a bag plus an orange soda for its vitamins. No problem, we all needed our strength. The Old Mill was located in the wild countryside of Paramus, NJ. We walked up Blvd. East toward the top of Weehawken Stadium just before the entrance to Route 495 to catch our ride. We’d pile onto the bus and immediately take control of the rear section. This way we could open all the windows and breathe without the luxury of air conditioning. All that hiking worked up an appetite, so it was only logical that we ate every peanut butter and jelly sandwich in our possession. The Old Mill was a swimming and picnicking paradise. We passed fields and farms. We could have been in Kansas.
Upon arrival, we could not wait to plunge into the heavily chlorinated man-made lake. We were greeted by a public address loud speaker system (just like at home) which detailed every special available at the snack bar and then announced that a misplaced pair of dentures could be retrieved at the Lost and Found. What would be the first order of business? Careen down the sliding ponds, swim out to the rafts, or take on the big attraction, the High Dive?
The High Dive was 20 feet high with no bounce. The climb was straight up and imposing by itself. You knew that this was going to be another test of your manhood, no questions asked. You might get away with jumping off once or twice, just to get used to it; but in the end you had to man up and DIVE. From that height, water takes on the consistency of cement just waiting for your cranium to smash into the black water. Hobokenites were well represented amongst those who made the grade. Another teenager, not one of us, stood up there at the top waving to his pals but made the mistake of falling off the dry side of the board. He may well have been distracted by the bikinied girls dancing by the bandstand. This resulted into a one and half splat onto to the sand covered concrete. After complaining about broken ribs and too many Schaefers, he was carted away by his pals to a rousing round of applause from the admiring crowd for his spectacular landing.
Eventually, it was time to leave. Our lungs were heavy from the polio water that we ingested. We had our last call of popsicles and ice cream on our way out. Near the bus stop, we spotted a road side stand loaded with peaches. We busted the peddler’s chops, shouting that he couldn’t hit one of us in the head since he probably threw like a girl. We caught two of those Georgian beauties and considered it a victory. With the sun starting to set over the verdant fields of Paramus, we boarded the bus bound for home. All of our party was accounted for, some sunburnt, some tired, but all happy to have added another experience to the tales of the open road