Press Release

mckenna

Press Release

Congressman Pete King Speaks With Students at McKenna Elementary School in Massapequa Park

I had a great time meeting with 4th-6th grade students from McKenna Elementary School in Massapequa Park. Terrific group of kids. Discussed the role of Congress as well as the Presidential race. I hope the kids got as much out of it as I did.

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The debate about "Old School Values" vs. "Contemporary Standards" is raging again. In Tuesday's New York Times alone there were 3 articles on this topic generated by Bill O'Reilly's latest best seller "Old School -- Life in the Sane Lane." (Since his book came out, stories have appeared charging O'Reilly with inappropriate behavior toward several women. Those allegations are being investigated and there should be a resolution reasonably soon. This posting is focused entirely on the "Old School" debate.) Reading the book and then the reviews and articles addressing the myriad issues and questions arising from it, caused me to do some reflecting of my own.

To start with, I'm a few years older than O'Reilly and the kids in the neighborhoods I grew up in (Sunnyside and St. Albans) would have considered Bill's Levittown neighborhood upscale. Also while I consider myself "Old School" (and certainly my children and grandchildren think I am!), I am the first to acknowledge that in so many ways today's life has so much more for everyone. Just a few examples: Kids have sports facilities, training and equipment I couldn't even have imagined; the scourge of childhood polio is virtually gone; the internet makes a universe of knowledge available in mere moments; and millions of people of all ages are alive and well because of the wonders of modern medicine. But yet there are things that aren't right. Until their teenage years too many kids don't leave their street to be with friends except for a parent-arranged "play date;" neighborhood ball fields and basketball courts are vacant unless there is a league supervised by adults; and parents and schools want the kids protected from any even potentially traumatic event.

Now for my childhood in Sunnyside which at the time I didn't think was particularly good or bad. My class in St. Teresa's had 72 kids and until the 3rd grade we only went to school for 4 hours a day, either 8:00 AM to noon, or noon to 4:00. These "Sessions," as they were called, alternated monthly. Order was maintained by Dominican nuns employing methods that could be charitably described as indiscriminate acts of terror. From the time we were 8 or 9 years old, my friends and I walked together to school without our parents. My apartment house on 44th Street between 43rd Avenue and Skillman Avenue was six long blocks from St. Teresa's. The intersections included Queens Boulevard, later designated by Queens philosopher Jimmy Breslin as the "Boulevard of Death," and Greenpoint Avenue a massive roadway which intersected at 44th Street with 47th Avenue creating an X-shaped crossing that looked as if it had been designed by a drunken geometry teacher.

Similarly, in total contrast with today, kids were NOT ALLOWED to be in the apartment during daylight hours. You HAD to be out on the street. Since at least a thousand people lived on my relatively short street, it was never difficult to find kids to hang out. There were no athletic facilities at St. Teresa's nor was there any grassy area anywhere near our block. We improvised. Being baseball fans, we would amuse ourselves on the sidewalk or in the street ("out in the gutter") with variations of stick ball, slap ball, diamond ball, punch ball, stoop ball or curb ball. The ball of choice, of course, was the venerable Spalding ( or "Spaldeen") which I believe sold for 20 cents, a massive sum in those days. It was a traumatic disaster to have the Spalding go down the sewer!

Then when we were 8 or 9, a park was built at the corner of 43rd and Skillman. (The actor James Caan says he lived up the block from the park but he was a few years older than me and I don't remember him.) The park was all concrete but it had a good-sized softball field and 3 basketball courts in the outfield, extending along the left field wall from the foul line to the edge of center field. We would play some variation of ball from morning to night, taking time out only for lunch and dinner. No matter how hard I try, I can't recall ever seeing anyone's parents being at the park unless they were there to tell their kid to come home.

To be honest, at the time I considered my mother to be crazily overprotective, always worrying about my brother Kevin or me being in a draft or catching polio. But today she could be locked up for child neglect -- as could all those Sunnyside parents! When I was just 10 years old, a group of altar boys were given free 75 cents bleacher seats to a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. It was a weekday game and with only some teenage kid supposed to be keeping an eye on us, we got on the Flushing Line IRT train at the Bliss Street Station on Queens Boulevard and somewhere along the way transferred to the BMT line which took us through all of Manhattan and under the East River into Brooklyn. Ebbets Field was my Vatican City and the Dodgers my secular saints. Nothing could beat a day in the center field bleachers watching Duke Snider chase down a fly ball. It was also striking to walk from my world of no grass and a black and white television into the beauty of bright green grass, red clay, shining white foul lines, garishly festooned billboards along the outfield wall and the monstrous 40 foot scoreboard in right field.

The following year when we were 11, a group of us organized our own team and without any adult help signed ourselves up for the PAL. Because there no grass field in Sunnyside, every Saturday we took the IRT train from Bliss Street to Flushing Meadow to play our games. Often my brother Kevin who was not yet 8, came with us. Again no adults and only whatever equipment we could scrape together -- never a batting helmet by the way. As for my mother, she hoped I didn't sweat too much (another cause of polio).

The next year we moved to St. Albans. Since we would be living in our own house, I thought everyone would be rich. Instead everyone was about the same which was fine with me. One change though was that the classroom size at St. Pascal's was about 52. Even with the lower numbers though, indiscriminate terror was still the nuns' (Sisters of St. Joseph) method of choice.

Similar to Sunnyside, a group of kids in St. Albans living on 205th St. and 208th St. formed our own baseball team -- the Vampires. With no adult involvement we set up games with other neighborhood teams, scraped together enough game equipment (including heavily worn catcher's gear and two bats but still no batting helmet) and even made our own uniform shirts -- white t-shirts with a bright red V hand-painted down the front and red numerals on the back (mine was 14 for Gil Hodges). Considering we had absolutely no coaching, we had some good players: Hughie Courtney (our Captain); Richie Gonzalez; Eddie Bond; Ronnie Leventeny; and Jimmy Fenton. I was the catcher and did okay. We closed the season by beating the Spiders in a 7 game series spread out over 5 weeks from mid-September to early October. No adults and also no trophies but we had won.

I don't want this childhood to sound like it was perfect or idyllic. I don't think any of us thought of it that way. There were no high hopes or dreams nor any feeling sorry for yourself. Just grind it out each day and hope that no parent, nun or neighbor gave you a hard time. No one seemed to worry about our feelings. There were never any sensitivity or grieving sessions. A friend of mine's brother went to the electric chair but nothing much was ever said about it. And my friend's life went on. When we were in the 6th grade, the 13 year old brother of a girl in our class died and we were marched to his wake and saw him laid out in his living room. Afterwards no one asked us how we felt. And I could give other such examples, none of which seemed to make much of an impact at the time but apparently gave us a certain stoicism and inner strength not to panic or look for sympathy.

One unfortunate aspect of Sunnyside life was the alcoholism which affected families. It was a small minority but it was undeniable. My apartment house at 41-25 was one house down from the Celtic Cafe and seeing the condition of the fathers and mothers of some friends of mine as they came out of the bar made me wonder what my friends' home lives must have. been. (That's one reason why I've never laughed at the jokes about the "friendly neighborhood drunk.") Fortunately my mother and father never had more than a casual drink. In fact my main recollection of my father during those years is that he was always working. A 30 year veteran of the NYPD, rising to the rank of Lieutenant, and a Major in the Army Reserves, he invariably seemed to have at least 2 other jobs, whether it be a physical instructor, a bouncer or private detective. Maybe that's why when I was going to St. Francis College in Brooklyn full-time, I worked full-time loading and unloading trucks and freight cars at the Railway Express West Side Terminal in Manhattan. It just seemed the thing to do. When my father was putting in his retirement papers after all his years of working hard, he was diagnosed with the cancer which would kill him a few years later. He never once complained or showed even a hint of self-pity. He died as he lived.

Wrapping this all up and on reflection, I suppose that some of us could have developed more social skills and gotten over our tendency to grunt, nod and mumble something barely coherent when we should be showing some emotion. Similarly, we could probably do a better job of cutting back our self-deprecating sense of humor and overcoming our Irish fatalism. My sister Barbara, who is much younger than Kevin and I, says that my whole crowd is just crazy. My wife Rosemary, who was raised in Atlanta, agrees. But maybe it was that neighborhood upbringing and the belief that the world doesn't owe us a living which enables us to keep going when things get tough and not -- for instance -- go into a mental collapse when our candidate doesn't win an election! After all, we learned a long time ago that life isn't fair and not everyone gets a trophy! God Bless America!!

Paid for by Pete King for Congress.
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