HIGHLIGHTS and LOWLIGHTS FROM THE TEENS AND BEYOND
In my last year of elementary school, I was part of a relay team that was victorious at the Ardmore Relays and received much publicity, including photos, in local and Philadelphia newspapers. Perhaps inspired by this, I went out for track in Junior High. But for some reason, perhaps lack of sufficient speed, the event I chose to compete in was the pole vault. “Compete” is hardly the correct word choice because I failed to vault higher than 7 feet, a height that many high jumpers can clear.
But the competitive spirit never dies and I later found myself captain and high scorer on the junior high chess team. More informally, I did learn some gymnastics and also finished second in the school’s wrestling tournament.
Junior high (then eighth and ninth grades) was also a time of interacting with other cultures, learning that there were dirty comic books, and haltingly making my way socially. Academically, it turned out quite successfully resulting several awards including one for highest average ever achieved.
I can sum up a history of high academic achievement, from grammar school to state bar examinations, as the result of being a quick learner and an excellent test taker. I was never a thinker or scholar.
World War II. We all remember where we were at the time of a fateful event, such as the Kennedy assassination, or the 9-11 attack. When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, December 7,1941, I was engaged in an inter-neighborhood touch football game we called the “Toilet Bowl”. Since I was just 15, the impending war did not mean immediate military service, but it soon affected our lives in a variety of ways.
As the war progressed, my father became more and more involved. He was a local air warden but, more importantly, he was an active armchair general. He had maps and battlefield area layouts on our dining room table and hung on dining room walls. With these, he could follow the progress on various war fronts and speculate on future actions.
Other changes were the hanging of blackout curtains, gathering in our blanket-enclosed living room to save on heat, following war news closely, and rationing, including gas rationing. Shortages of butter and nylons did not mean much, but gasoline was something else. At least I developed an important skill – siphoning gas from other cars.
So now it was high school, a time of great fun, some social trauma, and some sports. Although I mostly enjoyed playground basketball, my sport turned out to be wrestling. I was quite good at it, serving as co-captain in my senior year, and continuing to participate and do well in college at Princeton. Although I did not do well in post-season tournaments, in individual meets I did once defeat a Pennsylvania state champion and later dominated an Eastern Intercollegiate champion until I foolishly tried a tricky move (for the first time) and lost.
Back to high school. I also played on the high school soccer team one year and one year went out for track. I guess that neither I, nor the track coach knew my premier event since, when he was asked what I was out for, he replied “I think fresh air”.
Did well academically, but not outstanding. A couple of “deportment” issues. In Miss Fuller’s Latin II class, I must have talked too much for her taste since she made me move my desk to the corner, where I sat in her class for the entire year. Near the end of our senior year, a time of pranks and other foolish behavior, I took to roaming the space above the classrooms. Unfortunately, on one of these excursions, the accomplice I took that time put his foot through a classroom ceiling panel and we were caught.
College. Since my father and his father had gone to Princeton, it was natural for me to apply there. But in 1943 there was a war on, and so military service was both obligatory and desired. Along with many of my classmates, I tested for the V-12 program to be assigned to a college for an 18-month program in preparation for service as a naval officer.
V-12 notices came out, but none for me; and so I enrolled in the freshman class at Princeton. I obtained a room assignment and shipped my clothes and other items. About a week before my planned move to college, I received my Navy V-12 notice, assigning to me to -- Princeton! Not only that, but in the barracks (nice dormitory) I roomed with three of my friends from high school. The navy contingent, about 100 of us, was housed in Little Hall, one of the many handsome housing dorms at the college.
Except for a few drills and some required courses such navigation and engineering subjects, life in the Navy at Princeton was not much different than freshman civilian life. We were awakened early each morning to assemble in front of the dorm. There were few other required events but once we and the Marine contingent had to do a “strength” competition featuring push-ups, sit-ups, and timed events such as an obstacle course with climbing over walls, crawling through pipes, and other tests. I finished first in the competition, but hurt for days. We could do college sports (I was on the Princeton soccer and wrestling teams), wander on campus, go out most evenings and away most weekends.
In summer months, I went a few times to our parents’ house in Stone Harbor at the New Jersey seashore. Took various friends with me. Also, during this Princeton stay, I often went to New York to go to jazz clubs or to see performers such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Among the musicians I was able to catch were Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk.
I did quite well academically, especially in history, taught by an excellent professor, “Beppo” Hall. We really liked him; one evening, three of us visited him at home to apologize on behalf of classmates who had insulted him that morning. I had a personal problem with calculus, which I could handle very well (although I never really understood the point of it all). Our professor was a fine German mathematician, quite dogmatic. The problem was that on the first test I mostly just put down the answers without showing my work. He accused me of cheating and from then on to the end of the term we never spoke and I mostly just wrote letters during class. However, he did give me an A, because I could ace the exams.
In my first year at law school, I encountered the same problem, receiving a poor grade on the criminal law exam because I tended to write down only the conclusions.
Much later, I learned that Michael Bloomberg had the same problem throughout his schooling. In examinations, he often did the work in his head; failing to show it on paper, and he consequently received lower grades. Fortunately, we both overcame these obstacles and became billionaires.
Military service. When I completed the 18-month Navy program in November 1944, World War II was still raging. I wish that I could regale my children and grandchildren with heroic tales of combat and valor, but I cannot. After a brief period of desultory training in cold, dreary Asbury Park, NJ, I was sent to midshipman school in Chicago.
This was a time of easy courses and much fun. I frequented jazz and blues clubs and for a time dated the beautiful daughter of a Chicago reporter, Jake Lingle, who got involved with the mob and was murdered in the ‘30s. She was my date for dining and dancing one evening at the Palmer House hotel to the music of Les Brown, with Doris Day on the vocals.
That was a good Spring in Chicago. A few of us were excused from final exams because of good grades and there was concentration on the popular prom ending our term. Many Chicago girls hoped to attend. I had 3 possibilities: my “steady”, Jane, a nice, nice- looking girl from New Jersey, who had visited me here one weekend, Ann, a very young and attractive girl from my hometown, who had stopped by Chicago with her parents, and Lore Lingle, my pretty Chicago companion who was a bit more sophisticated and advanced than this callow midshipman. Had a great time, with Lore.
Near the end of Midshipman School, I volunteered to serve in a navy unit called Scouts and Raiders. At the time, this unit’s mission was to sneak into Japanese-held Pacific islands prior to invasion by our forces and bring or send back tactical information.
(“The pigeons always came back”) However, by the time I was commissioned and sent to the training camp we had about run out of islands to invade and so the mission had been changed to fighting as guerillas against the Japanese in China.
Although we did do some of the original training, such as strenuous swimming and carrying rubber rafts through swamps, the type of training had changed. We had classes to learn the Chinese language (but Mandarin only) and lots of training in judo and other hand-to-hand combat.
My fellow volunteers were mostly a rough and ready lot, big football players and other athletes. One older guy had fought in the civil war in Spain and tried to recruit some of us for the International Brigade. We all partied strenuously. In my more foolish moments, I several times “stole” the Elk head from The Elk Club, carrying it back on my lap on the bus to the base. So I looked very foolish.. I always did return the trophy. A welcome respite from our daily training was when the base commander would summon several of us to his “office”. This meant that he wanted to play an hour or so of volleyball.
On to more war stories. As the war was ending, our training camp was closed and we were all sent to various other naval assignments. I was assigned to an LCFF ship (an LCI landing craft fitted out to be a flotilla flagship) and sent to San Francisco to await further travel orders.
A high school classmate, Ted Friel, happened to be sent there by the Navy at the same time. He knew well a classmate, Ginger MacDonald, who had moved with her family to San Mateo and arranged for us to stay with them. Ted stayed with the MacDonalds and I stayed with nearby friends, the Griffins.
I got along well with the son, Merv Griffin, a witty and talented friend of Ginger’s. He was maybe a year older, at 20, and had already achieved some success as a local radio personality. He and I went out to San Francisco a number of times to various shows and clubs, some seeming a bit strange to me. One evening, we went to a small party in a luxurious apartment. The hostess was a sophisticated lady who may or may not have been the notorious Peaches Browning.
(Met with Merv, and he visited, during his singing career with Freddy Martin Orchestra, and during his talk show career -before he became TV host and then hotel mogul. Last time was when he was nice enough to listen to and accompany daughter Barbara. He advised that she was good enough to pursue a singing career, rather than attend Northwester. Indeed, he was correct and she did become Broadway star.)
After a couple of weeks, the Navy sent me in search of my ship, which was moving around the Pacific. First I travelled to Samar, in the Philippines, staying in a small base at the edge of a forest. While waiting for further orders, I often trekked through the forest, carrying my large Navy knife and sort of pretending that I was in deep, darkest Africa. But I saw no dangerous beasts and the few “native” settlements I encountered were not inhabited by cannibals but with friendly people who cared little that I was passing by.
The Navy had a habit of sending me to a port where my ship was at the time the orders were cut. So began my chase aroung the Pacific. The next destination for me was Shanghai, China. Travel there was no fun. It was in a crowded troop ship that encountered a small typhoon. Needless to say, my tendency to get seasick returned in full force. By an odd coincidence a one of the ship’s crew members was a guy named “Whitey”Bennett, a boy I had beaten in a high school dual wrestling meet. A day after the meet, I had learned from newspapers that Bennett had been state champ the year before. We had a couple of good chats.
But then, Shanghai! A bit run down, but exotic. Historic, teeming harbor, shops, rickshaws, famous bars. Of course, my ship was not there, having departed for some Pacific island. So, I spent a week or more enjoying this storied city. I wandered around the streets and alleys, and probably foolishly trying some of my Chinese phrases. Foolish, not only because of my limited ability but especially because I learned only Mandarin while in Shanghai they speak Cantonese.
Shanghai had become a haven for White Russians and other émigrés. For some reason, probably the uniform, I found myself invited to some swank parties in fancy apartments. White Russians and others there seemed ever so worldly and sophisticated. Some were quite attractive and charming.
Finally, my stay came to an end as I was sent to Okinawa to meet my ship. The ship had gone so I had almost a week there. I met some friends from high school and enjoyed visiting with them at the Officers Club. Off I went to Guam to meet my ship. Instead, I was sent directly to the hospital, with pneumonia. After 3 or 4 days, I was released so that I could, finally, join my ship as it set sail.
Our LCFF was small, about 150’ long by 35’ wide. Its complement was 3 officers and 11 crew. The captain was Eddie Doyle, the son of a New Jersey bookmaker. He was an engaging, wise-cracking guy, who ran a very informal ship. Also, an inveterate girl chaser. (If I declined to go bar-hopping with him, he sometimes returned to the ship to get me, bringing 2 young ladies with him.) But he was a smart captain as witnessed in Galveston when he docked the ship facing seaward so that we were the only ship that escaped unscathed from a dockside fire. The executive officer was a serious, competent guy who kept things in somewhat good order.
As I said, our ship was informal. Music blared all day long. (I can still hear Evelyn Knight singing “Let him go, let him tarry”)..We had an open galley.; if available, the crew could go there at any time to get a steak, strawberry shortcake or other goodies. One day the first mate and I had a boxing match ( a draw). One time, while in port, this same first mate had his girlfriend staying with him on the ship.
My job, mainly, was to stand 4 hour watches (4 on, 8 off throughout the day and night). This meant running the ship from the conning tower, up top, mainly just staying on course or staying in position when travelling in formation. The conn was open to the sky and in the Pacific, at night, it was beautiful.
Because of my illness, for the first week or so I just stood watch and went to bed. A crew member later told me that for my first 2 weeks, he thought I was a passenger. Our destination was Hawaii. On the way, we encountered some really bad weather. I can still feel the big thud as the ship lurched from one swell to another. Each time, it felt that the intense shaking would tear the ship apart.
Docking near Honolulu, we spent about a month there. Among other enjoyments, the captain and I drove to the North Shore and played golf at a beautiful little course in the middle of the island. With tongue in cheek, I like to say that I learned to surf at Waikiki Beach. Not really true, for riding a surfboard there was like descending on an escalator.
Then, off to San Diego, an easy trip. An attractive and busy town. Lots of Navy there. As recounted elsewhere, that is where I, as a neophyte commissary officer, ordered 144 gross of doughnuts. Early the next morning, when I got back to the ship, the crew and boxes and boxes of doughnuts were waiting for me. Looked as though these stacks and stacks of boxes would sink the ship, I spent the next few days selling as many doughnuts as possible to other Navy ships.
Next, we were ordered to Galveston, Texas and set off along the coast of Mexico to the Panama Canal. This was indeed a beautiful trip. The weather was good, the coastline was interesting and we encountered dolphins, flying fish, birds, and much other sea life. At one point, we stopped the ship so that I could go overboard and catch a sea turtle. Not a real big one, shell maybe 15-18 inch diameter. We got it aboard, took photos, and let it go.
Crossing Panama through the Canal was a great experience; actually the only canal I have ever encountered. Great locks filling up, interesting terrain, etc. A night out and about in Panama City was different sort of experience. Seemed to be mostly brothels, seedy bars, and similar establishments. This city was not alone in this respect, but all bars seemed to have young women (“B girls”, I believe) who would join you, engage in suggestive talk, and order copious amounts of expensive drinks.
Out of Panama and on to Galveston, an easy trip. We were docked next to warehouses, stocked with sugar cane and other tropical products. Lots of stevedore activity (in fact, one day I joined the shape up hoping for a day’s work, but was not chosen.). Lots of fun there. Played a lot of basketball. One player, an Illinois grad, tried to recruit me, talking scholarship but probably just full of it.
In Galveston, I spent a lot of time at a jazz club listening to music and talking with guys who knew so much more about jazz and singers than I did. And, at least once I managed to visit a swank nightclub. It seemed to be a protected place where politicians and other shady characters could gamble and do business.
Leaving Galveston, we headed for Jacksonville, Florida. When we neared Key West, we received orders changing our destination to New Orleans. The air was warm, the water was clear, and so we decided to stop at sea and have a swim. As the ship slowed, the first mate jumped overboard to start the swim. Unfortunately, the ship was still moving and so he, not much of a swimmer, was soon some distance behind. I was up on the conn and mostly for fun, but probably also for show-off, made a high dive into the water. All I recall was that I went really deep. Swam back to the sailor; he was fine and we were soon joined by most of the crew.
To dock in New Orleans, you have to travel many miles through the Mississippi River delta. An interesting trip, the ship being piloted by a seasoned pilot who joins the ship before entry.
Spent several weeks in New Orleans, awaiting my discharge and becoming Captain when Dolan left. Not a bad place for a young man to be. One memory is of two or three evenings spent with a very attractive dancer I met named Stormy. She and her friends kept inviting me to join them at a “tea party”. I thought this meant marijuana and although I never bought “Reefer Madness”, declined in order to avoid trouble. (My suspicion that Stormy was an exotic dancer was confirmed when, years later, she appeared on the cover and in an article in Life Magazine.)