A Kid from Canarsie
Canarsie, the home of the Canarsie Indians and me. Of course not at the same time. Canarsie was a small town in the borough of Brooklyn on the shores of Jamacia Bay. It was an isolated little town and when I was growing up there it was uninfluenced by Television or the Metropolitan areas surrounding it. It was at an end of an era that I grew up there. Golden City, an amusement park on the scale of Coney Island was in it’s last throes of being, only remnants remained. Canarsie was a place that any kid from Brooklyn that lived there did so with great imagination, wits and guts.
And so it was!
Canarsie was the end of the line for the BMT elevated railroad. At the end of that line there was a loop which ran directly in front of the station where the trolley cars could turn around and then transport people to the end of it’s line which was near the shore line of Jamacia Bay. It was originally meant to transport the large volumes of people that came to Canaries to visit Golden City amusement park. The trolley tracks ran between the houses to it destinations, not as most Trolley did, where the tracks were laid in the middle of a main street. Needless to say, a kid from Canarsie could put his imagination to work in many unthought-of ways. Putting pennies on the track to have the trolley run over it, was an ingenious idea, at least so we thought. The trolley would flatten out the penny to the size of a half dollar and thinner than a dime. Of course the only thing we accomplished was to make the penny worthless and in those days a penny could buy much more than it would today. We got our pennies worth back in other ways from the trolley car, we would hitch a ride on the back of the trolley and ride it down to the shore to go swimming in Jamacia Bay.
Of course most of our exciting times were during the summer when we did not have to go to school but that left a lot of free time on our hands. As our families did not have a lot of money in those days we had to find ways to occupy our time without any money to spend. The local dumps! A free treasure trove of STUFF. One of our forays was to the railroad dump, the one behind the BMT station that I mentioned above. There were piles of GOOD STUFF there. One of the treasure items we found were thousands of wooden slats that were about an inch and a half wide and one quarter of an inch thick. We had no idea what we could do with them but we went back home, which was only about a half mile away, and got our wagons. Now these weren’t little red wagons, they were wagons we built from Stuff we found at various places around the neighborhood, not all the wheels were necessarily of the same size but they were sturdy wagons because we used them to carry peoples groceries home from the grocery store. Of course we charged for this service, if I remember right it was more of a donation than a charge, but we didn’t get rich at it but it did put a few pennies in our pockets for “ Wings singles” (cigarettes) at a penny a piece and other goodies from the candy store . Back to the good stuff. We brought wagon loads of the wooden slats home from the dump and dumped them in a friends back yard. We put our heads together to decide what to do with them. Well, it took us more than a week to reach a consensus, but we all agreed that we should build a club house. Now the imagination comes into the picture. How are we going to put it together we had no tools or nails. Again we put our heads together (keep in mind that these head were maybe 8 to ten years old). We decided to weave the slats together in panels and then assemble the panels to form a box like structure. The club house was built with an old rug draped as a door. The clubhouse was about four feet square. The first event in the new clubhouse was a treat gained by one of our members , I’m sure in some nefarious way. It was Feenamint Chicklets, for those of you not familiar with Chicklets, they were candy coated little squares of gum. So we had a celebration and each had a substantial share of the Feenamint gum. The gum was enjoyed by all, until that evening and all of the next day. Feenamint was a laxative in gum form, needless to say none of us were in any condition to do anything that next day. We made a lot of use of our new clubhouse but when it started to approach the Fall season we felt that the clubhouse would need some kind of heater to keep us warm. We went to the dump and found an empty five gallon can, which we thought would make a good container to build a fire in. At the time we didn’t notice, or didn’t pay any attention, to the fact that the can had originally been used to hold some kind of roofing material or tar. We brought the can back to the clubhouse and set it in a back corner , fortunately we didn’t place it in a position that would block the door way. We had plenty of kindling wood from the slats we built the clubhouse from. It really wasn’t cold enough to light a fire but we wanted to test it so we broke up some of the wood slats a with some paper we but it in the pail and lit it. It developed such an amount of heat that we couldn’t stay in the clubhouse so we all got out choking and coughing, almost immediately after we got out of the clubhouse the remnants of whatever the can held originally must have melted and caught fire. The flames flared up right through the top of the clubhouse. (note: The clubhouse was not close to any other structure or flammable material). Quickly we knocked the clubhouse down and stated throwing dirt on the fire, which we were able to put out right away but not before we created a lot of smoke in the area and the surrounding buildings. The parents of those of us that lived in the immediate area became aware of what happened and we all were put under house arrest. Needless to say that was the end of the clubhouse.
It was only a matter of days now before we had to go back to school but we were hearing rumors about a great dump that was about two miles from where we lived. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity. We hiked the two miles or so hauling our wagons to find the dump, after some searching and asking passers by, we found the dump. Now a days we would consider this a high tech dump. I didn’t mention it before but these were not garbage dumps they were trash dumps. Without going into all of the details of our search we found two items that were far better than GOOD STUFF.
There were these strange looking canisters that were about a foot long and four or five inches in diameter, round on both ends with a valve at one end. By shaking the canisters we found that there was some content in them. We loaded up about twenty of them in our wagons. Not knowing then what these canisters held in store for us in the upcoming days. The other item we found were long sort of octagonal in shape and about three four inches in diameter, 12 feet long with four inch ¼ inch pins on both ends. They were tent poles. We loaded about ten of then on our wagons also. As it would turn out these pole would be in some respect be our savior in the days to come. The trip home was difficult as we had hundred of pounds of stuff we were hauling and the wheels of our wagons were groaning and squeaking. We made it home sometime near dark and dumped our haul in an empty lot next to my grandfathers house.
The empty lot next to my grandfathers house was a favorite place of ours, we played war with our toy lead soldiers there, we built small fires there and roasted “Mickies” (potatoes), and as I said earlier we dumped our last haul from the dump there also. As the next day arrived we were all curious to find out what the canisters were that we brought home. The valve at the end of the canisters intrigued us, we opened one slightly and some smelly gas hissed out. Again a kid’s imagination goes to work. I want to remind you that we were only about ten years old. What do we do with the canisters. I want to write for the record here and now, WE WERE THE FIRST TO DEVELOP THE BALLISTIC MISSILE. Again putting our heads together. I have to say without bragging, that how we would use the canisters and how we built the clubhouse were my ideas. We thought that if we got a stove pipe, dug a shallow whole, put one end of the stove pipe in the hole and had set as if it were a cannon. Then build a fire in the hole and slide one of the canisters into the stove pipe valve first, the heat would cause the contents to expand and the pressure would blow the valve off of the canister. What would happen then, we had no idea, but we found out. We built the fire under the stove pipe, put a canister into the stove pipe valve first so that the valve was at the bottom into the fire. We Waited————————–.
If I remember correctly it took ten minutes or more before anything happened. When it happened we were overjoyed, the valve did blow off the end of the canisters and the canister came out of the stove pipe like a rocket with whatever it was blasting out in a stream behind it. Of course without gyros to guide it, it flew on a very erratic trajectory, but it flew and disappeared some where over the surrounding houses, we know not where. We continued to fire off at least a half dozen more and noticed that the visibility in the area was down to about three feet. Unfortunately the last one we fired off, because of it’s erratic trajectory, took a sharp right turn and crashed into the side of grandfathers house. My grandfather came out to see what created the noise inside his house and when he seen what we were doing he looked like he was ready to kill us. I didn’t run because I would have to eventually go home. Anyway, to make a long story short my grandfather was the type of man that would build anything he needed, rather than buy it so I offered him the poles we brought back from the dump. As the canister didn’t do any damage to his house he accepted, gave me a swift kick in the butt and told us to stop doing what we were doing. We eventually found out that the canisters contained DDT so our area was devoid of Mosquitoes for some time to come.
Winter finally arrived and school was back in session. Winter and snow in those years was different that it is now. First of all we got much more snow more often than they do now, second the roads weren’t plowed the snow was packed down by the vehicles riding over it. This resulted in a hard packed icy surface on the roads. The Flexible Flyer sled was the premier sled of the time, I didn’t own one nor did any of my other friend, we all had some off brand name of sled. As there weren’t any hills around we used our sleds by running with them and belly flopping down on the sled and go as far as it would take us and we did this over and over again. It was tiresome and didn’t get us very far, so imagination or invention, however you want to look at it we had to come up with another way. As I said the roads weren’t plowed and they were covered with hard packed snow, ice or bare spots. In those days cars used chains on there tires almost every time it snowed. CARS! That was the answer to our problem. If when a car stopped at a red light and we snuck up behind it and held on to it’s bumper (which you could do back then ) we could go as afar as we wanted to go. We couldn’t necessarily go where we wanted to go so If we were going to far or not where we wanted to go we would either wait for the next stop light to let go or just let go and glide to the side of the road. All was going well until we realized that we could get more than one or two sleds on a car by hooking our feet into the front of a sled behind us. We ended up with a train of sleds behind us, to the point that the car would only skid its wheels and not be able to move. The driver would get out and chase us all off ,but as soon as he got back it the car some of us would hitch back on again. It made for great fun and excitement for during the winter months.
There are pages and pages more that can be written about a kid’s life in Canarsie, playing stick ball, or kick the can or so many other things that I swear, I believe the kids in Canarsie invented. It was a great life for a kid in
canarsie, poor or not, we learned to use our imagination, invent as a result of necessity, learn to be mechanics and builder’s, learn the hardships of life and how to overcome them, and on and on. The kid’s of today are unfortunate that they aren’t forced by necessity to learn how to get along in life.
Paul L. Viverito http//lindasfloridaphotos.com