Friday, August 15, 2014

My First Heroes

My uncles were my first heroes – after Dad of course. The Anderson brothers Gene, Al, Bob and Don and Mom’s brother Erik. To a little kid, these guys were all great, kindly giants.

Erik Olsen was my mother’s adopted brother. He was a big burly NYPD cop. He worked shifts and got extra pay for holidays so sometimes was not around for family gatherings, but if we were at Grandma’s house at 29 Treadwell Avenue on Staten Island, he would usually stop by (He was actually born in that house in 1921).

He was on The Emergency Squad and didn’t ride around in a regular black and white police car but in a truck that I remember being like a UPS truck. These guys are the SWAT teams, the special rescue teams, hostage negotiators and also the canine units.  

During WWII, Uncle Erik was in the Navy. He was two years out of Port Richmond High School and joined up right after Pearl Harbor. He became a Chief Petty Officer in the Seabees which was the nickname for the Construction Battalion. He and his men would land on the heels of the Marines as they island hopped across the Pacific building back what the Japanese and the Marines blew up.

Uncle Erik was thirteen years older than Mom. He and Ruth Lucker were married on May 24, 1947 and lived on Floyd Street on Staten Island. I think Aunt Ruth had a sister or two that lived in the same block. They had a daughter named Ruth Ann, who I remember  married a guy named Harlow and they had a daughter.  Haven't seen them in a long time, though, so not sure what became of them.

Uncle Erik was a great genial guy who looked to me like Santa without a beard. Back then, all of our parents and Grandparents generation were members of ethnic clubs or Freemasons or both. The women were in the Eastern Star. Uncle Erik was in The Sons of Norway, and The Vasa Order of America – both clubs like The Elks, but for people of Scandinavian heritage. Their social lives were built around these organizations and they all had regular parties and dances and picnics. As a kid, I always looked forward to those events.

One of my best memories of Uncle Erik was at some Scandinavian picnic at a park called Pigeon Hill in Morris Plains or Parsippany – I think it’s part of Powder Mill housing development now. Back then there were picnic tables, b-ball courts and a lake to swim in.

Well, the men had a galvanized metal tub about as big around as a garbage can but only half as tall. It was full of ice and clams and sitting on a picnic table. They were drinking beer and shucking clams and sucking them down raw. I never had one before. Uncle Erik cut one open with a pocket knife and handed it to me saying, “Here try that.  That’ll put some hair on your chest!” (They were big about putting hair on your chest).

You know, I sucked down that clam and was so grossed out I made a really hideous face, which got him and his buddies laughing like it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. Then he hands me his brown bottle of Rheingold Extra Dry to wash it down. So I had my first clam on the half shell and my first beer within seconds of each other and I was all of about 7 years old. I thought they were both disgusting at the time but, hey, I was one of the guys!

The big picnic every summer for the Swedes and Norwegians was at Vasa Park in Budd Lake, NJ. It was a private retreat for the Scandinavians. The went there from all over New York and New Jersey. If you go to Scanfest, that’s the place. Vasa Park had shuffleboard courts. We kids would try to get on the shuffleboard courts and play, but the old men would chase us off. Shuffleboard was to these guys like Bocce was to old Italians.

Vasa Park has a gigantic pool -- it’s still there. It was fed from a spring so the water was freezing cold. They also didn’t have skimmers so there was always grass clippings and about a million dead bugs floating around the edges. We didn’t care. I seem to remember learning to swim there. No one had life jackets or water wings or any kind of floatation. It was unheard of and probably for sissies, anyway. Dad threw me in and yelled “Swim!” so I did.

They had a slide and a diving board. I don’t think there were any rules except don’t go in for an hour after eating. I cannot remember any adult ever saying don’t do this or don’t do that around that pool. We ran (there was no concrete around it, just grass) jumped and dove off the sides. Jumped on top of other kids in the pool. Pushed each other in. Went down the slide headfirst. It was completely out of control and wonderful. My father was always right in there with us doing cannonballs and throwing us in the air.

I can remember they had a soda machine at Vasa Park and one time a kid stuck his hand up the chute to try to catch the can as it was coming down.  Well, the can dropped and jammed his hand up in there so they had to take the whole machine apart to free him. It was very funny. For us. Not so much for him. If I remember right, he was crying the whole time.

There was a concession stand, but we always brought hamburgers and hot dogs and stuff and cooked on the charcoal grill. There would be potato salad and macaroni salad and chips and pretzels and all kinds of other terrific unhealthy dishes, but the only Scandinavian food I remember was Swedish meatballs. The grownups always had plenty of beer.

After swimming and shuffleboarding and eating and drinking all afternoon, as it got dark Uncle Erik and Aunt Ruth and Mom and Dad and Grandma and all the other aunts and uncles and great aunts and great uncles and other ancients would gather in this big wooden open aired pavilion. It was a big building with a roof, no walls and a dance floor. There would be a band with (of course) an accordion player, and those old Swedes and Norwegians would start dancing the Polka. There had to be twenty or more couples at any given time flying around in a big circle on the dance floor spinning around and stomping their feet so the floor shook.

The party would go on and on and on. It seemed to me like the dancing lasted very late into the night, but since most of the Staten Islanders came up on buses, they could drink to their hearts content and sleep all the way home.

Uncle Erik’s moment of fame came in the Summer of 1965. Less than a year after the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened (Brooklyn to Staten Island), he went up to rescue a would-be jumper. There was a photographer along who snapped this really powerful image of Uncle Erik standing out there on a girder in the dark, hanging onto the jumper and hanging onto a cable at the same time. The picture was on the cover of that summer’s issue of Spring 3100, the NYPD’s internal magazine. My grandmother had it framed and hung it on the wall.

Uncle Erik retired from the NYPD after putting in his twenty years or so and then he went to work for Farrell Lumber on Staten Island, working in the lumber yard. As he got older, his hair went from gray to white and his face got very red. He probably had sky high blood pressure and one day at the lumber yard he had a massive coronary and just dropped dead. I think it was 1984. He would have been 63. Aunt Ruth lived to be very old – close to 90 I think. Here’s that picture.

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