There was a huge building boom in the private home market after World War II. By August, 1945 there were over twelve million people in the armed forces, and many of them had had their lives on hold for up to five or six years. Now most of them would be coming home, and they shared a feeling that they had a lot of catching up to do. Millions of them wanted to get married, drink as much alcohol and smoke as many cigarettes as possible, have a family, drink real coffee, eat steak and eggs, and buy a car and a house. I was born in Queens, New York City in 1948, and I had a wonderful perch from which to watch the very last vacant lots, small farm plots (!!!) and the few remaining bits of primeval woodland in Queens fill in like the bottom of an hourglass until every square inch of raw land had been occupied by new homes.
Children had vastly more freedom in the early Fifties than they do now, more, in fact, than was at all sensible in a place as generally unsafe as Queens. By the age of four I was part of a wandering pack of mostly boys. We roamed the immediate neighborhood with zero adult supervision. Our parents trusted us to cross some streets on our own, but not others, and they trusted us to know the difference. “Come home when the streetlights come on.” All through my early life it seemed like there were a great number of children within a year or two of my age. Behind the two-family house that my family lived in was a field of about one acre in size that had never been built upon. It had been, up to that time, devoted to agriculture, of all things, someone was still growing beans and tomatoes. I can picture it to this day. In 1952 or ‘53 it was slated for the construction of the one-family row-houses that became a hallmark of the town in question, which is called College Point. When they first cleared the land and prepared it for construction it became our favorite place in the world.
Regarding “College Point,” it actually was a point of land jutting out into the East River (which is actually an estuary, and not a river at all), just east of La Guardia Airport on the north shore of Long Island (which actually is an island). There had actually been a college there, briefly, but it had been gone for almost a century before I arrived.
I don’t remember any fencing around any of those construction sites, although I know that many boys did actually get hurt playing around the dirt piles or the half-constructed homes. The dirt piles! What better landscape could an army of reckless boys ever hope for? I recall these dirt piles being very large, but I suppose we must bear in mind that I was very small at the time. The dirt was very loose, and the piles were very regularly shaped. We had “dirt bomb” fights with a dozen boys on a side, hurling clods of dirt at one another. These often degenerated into rock fights, which were much more unpleasant. We played King of the Hill, gleefully tossing each other down the side of a pile. We also engaged in an activity that gives me chills to this day, an activity in which many boys famously die, an activity which is one of the reasons that it never fails to amaze me that boys ever grow successfully to manhood at all.
We dug caves into these piles of loose dirt with our hands. Caves! We created spaces beneath many hundreds of pounds of loose dirt. Boys of four, five or six years old, digging out chambers that were big enough for several boys at a time. I vividly remember being inside of these places. There was enough natural light to see, albeit dimly, so I suppose that the aperture was always fairly close by. We would just start digging into the pile and make a little chamber as soon as it seemed practical. You needed to crawl in, though, and luckily I always got out okay and I don’t remember any collapses. When those things come down around the heads of the occupants the result is often fatal. Death by misadventure, I think they call it.
For my towny friends, this all took place on 117th Street, just south of 12th Avenue. The bean field was between 12th and 14th Avenues, and between 119th and 117th Streets. 118th Street didn’t go through, because of a sudden change of grade, so sudden that it was almost a cliff. I lived on 119th Street at the time, close to the corner of 12th Avenue. There were a lot of children on 119th Street, but they seemed to be mostly girls and their ages didn’t agree with mine. For me, the real action was around the corner on 118th Street, the long block between 9th and 12th Avenues, where there was an army of boys right around my age. They were a great bunch of guys. Some have been quite successful in life; a few have already passed from the scene. Congratulations, or RIP, whichever is appropriate.
I’m only in contact with a couple of them at this point, but it’s a pleasure to remember them all. The block itself was very beautiful, lined on both sides with huge, mature trees that blotted out the sun when the leaves were full. Not a through street, it dead-headed on both sides, so there was not a lot of traffic. It was a perfect place to play Hide-and-Seek, or Tag, or any of the many games that we enjoyed. We played games that required no equipment, games that had very few rules, games that had almost nothing to interfere with the fun. Those were good times. I say to you all, wherever you are, that you were good, if often imperfect friends, and I remember each of you fondly, and I forgive you your imperfections. As the three time loser said to the judge upon sentencing: your honor, whom amongst us is perfect? I ask you only to forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive you. Bon chance, my friends. I’m so very glad that we all survived those impromptu caves.