Irvington, New Jersey. The early years

As my mother lay in bed in the hospital that 3rd day of July in 1930 with twin boys now newly added to the family a compassionate woman in the bed next to her said “Don’t worry my dear, one of them usually dies.” One more mouth to feed during the depression was not necessarily considered a bountiful gift. As we grew older my younger brother (by 15 minutes) Roy and I would often argue which of us was dead. I won the argument as he died a number of years ago while I am still here and can write about that comment.

Unfortunately, one of my earliest memories, certainly before age four, is of my mother being beaten by my father, mother screaming, the police coming, dad fleeing from the apartment, police searching the apartment with their flashlights and the next morning the three of us boys with our mother appearing in court. That was a scene that repeated itself in one form or another until I left home for good many years later.

My mother was the principal wage earner in our family during those depression years as she worked as a legal secretary in a law firm in Newark, New Jersey five and a half days a week. I am sure that added to my father’s poor sense of self worth as he was often out of work until the beginning of the 2nd World War when he was hired as an electrician with the New Jersey power and light company. While we were not really suffering in the depression I can recall many times getting donated baskets of food with a turkey or chicken set on our porch for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I can also recall being called into the office of the school nurse and given gifts of clean underwear. 

Money was hard to come by but you could purchase a loaf of bread for a nickel. When old enough, probably by age 10 or 11, perhaps even earlier, I had a magazine route selling the Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. From time to time my grandmother (on my mother’s side) would give me a nickel if I would take my wagon to the empty lot at the end of the block and come back with it full of soil which she would dump on the cinder pile forming between our two story house and that next door. That’s where we dumped the cinders from the coal furnace. On occasion my grandmother would hand me a bucket and a small scoop and told to follow the horse drawn ice wagon and if I came back with the bucket with horse manure I was given another nickel. She would put the manure in the water filled rain barrel to create her ‘manure tea’ which she would then use to fertilize the flowers she was raising on that pile of cinders and dirt. If a passing neighbor admired her flowers she would cut a small bouquet and give it to them. I asked her why, after so much work, was she giving her flowers away and she responded “It is a sin to have so much beauty and not share it.” 

In her later years my mother once told me how badly she felt that there were times when we could not afford to have a Christmas tree in the house for the holiday season. I responded by telling her that I did not remember such but as far back as I could remember every Christmas each of us boys got at least one book as a Christmas gift. As I think back on those Christmas books I realize that they had a significant impact on my later activities as often the books dealt with children in other nations and cultures. I recall them as books by Madeline Brandies and they dealt with children in Ireland, France, Belgium, Mexico, Germany and other countries and cultures. Even before I was ten years old I was aware of other nations and other ways of life.  That was the seed for my future travels and career commitments.

Often on Saturday afternoons or on Sundays we boys and mom would go on a walk to the South Mountain Reservation, a distance of about 4 miles and then walk home again. When I was 9 or 10 years old the Cub Scout Master for our Cub Scout Pack took the pack on that same hike. At the Reservation we active youngsters exhausted the Cub Master and he announced that we would be taking the bus back to Irvington rather than walking the distance. I informed him that I would walk. “No! We are all going on the bus together.” Again I refused saying that I did not have the nickel for the bus fare. He said he would loan it to me. Again I refused, saying I would walk.  He gave up and told me that I was now out of the Cub Pack since I would not follow his directions and I could do as I pleased. Well, my mother had other ideas and I was back in the pack at their next meeting.  Since then I was thrown out of the Boy Scouts of America two more times but that’s stories for later.

One of the elements that stands out in my memories of those first 11 years of life in Irvington was my involvement in art.  About 1939 my mother and dad decided that each of us boys would study a musical instrument. Roy chose cello and studied with the principal of the primary school we attended. Stanley chose piano which our dad could play a bit. I chose violin but after about two months decided I did not like it and asked if I could take art lessons instead.  With an affirmative response I enrolled in the Newark Academy of Art and Saturday mornings I would take the bus to Newark to attend art classes. 

Frankly, I remember little of the art classes but I do remember that I began collecting clippings on art from the Rotogravure section of the Sunday newspapers and magazines that we got or I pulled from garbage cans in the neighborhood. By the fall of 1941 I had 13 large newsprint scrapbooks filled with clippings of works of art from all epochs and all parts of the world. At that time I subscribed to the catalogue of the Associated American Artists that listed lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and over a hundred other contemporary artists for as little as $5.00 each.  I didn’t have the money to purchase their art work but I could write to them for the cost of a postage stamp which I did.  The only artist I still remember exchanging letters with was Grant Wood.  He encouraged me to pursue a career in art.  When I was 11 years old I designed my future home and it had a 4,000 sq. ft art gallery in it.  That all went by the wayside when we moved from north Jersey to the Jersey shore. 

In fourth or fifth grade we learned that one could find fossils in coal so I sat on the top of the coal pile in the basement of our house one Saturday and went through that pile, one piece of coal at a time until I had quite a pile of fossils. But I was also black from head to toe with coal dust as were my clothes.  Before I could join the family and show them my new treasures I was consigned to the tub and my clothes were put in the wash.  Such was the beginning of my collection of fossils. 

When getting soil from the lot at the end of our block for grandma’s garden I noticed a large sandstone boulder that had sea shells in it which I realized were fossils so I got a sledge hammer and chisel and chopped off several pieces.  I gave one of those rocks to the Newark Museum which they accepted for their collection. Several years later, in 1943, I received a formal card from the Museum Director informing me that the piece of fossiliferous sandstone containing brachiopods that I had donated to the museum was now on display in the Science Department on the third floor of the museum.  With that recognition I felt I was on my way to becoming a certified paleontologist which gave a boost to my pursuit of research in that field.