remember my first friends, beginning at age 5, when my family moved to
the Beach. How long ago that was, and yet it was only yesterday.
the block that seemed as if it had a thousand kids, there were two with
whom I became fast friends. Both were of Norwegian decent, Norwegian
'"narrow backs" like myself, as the immigrant Irish called the
first generation born to them in America. We had little in common other
than age. One boy was blond, and the other was red haired. Both were
Protestant, had sisters, could speak a little of their parents' native
tongue and even drank coffee. I was Irish, Catholic, had brown hair, no
sisters, spoke only English, and all we had back then was tea in our
house. But we had one initial common interest. Lila Dawson!
was a girl, but what a girl! She'd been on the front page of the Daily
News, among other things. Imagine a star right on the block . . . and a
pretty one, at that. She'd been in the paper because she'd managed to
get her arm caught in a revolving iron gate at the Avenue U subway
station. The Fire Department had to cut the gate to get her out and
she'd suffered, I think, a broken arm in the process. Trooper that she
was, she didn't cry, and the firemen fed her ice cream cones while
extracting her. What more could a five-year-old boy ask for in a
met my red-haired friend after my mother had read me the story about
Lila from the newspaper. I wanted to meet this heroic celebrity, and
thought she might have a lot of ice cream left, too. I was standing in
Red's front yard, which was right across the street from the Dawson
house, so I could look across in case Lila came out. And she did, with
Red--eating ice cream from Dixie cups!
I thought. Even worse, adding insult to injury, Red was yelling at me to
get out of his yard or he'd punch me in the nose! Being Irish, the
native intuition to respond in kind brought forth a like challenge, and
in seconds we were locked in youthful combat. Seconds after that, I had
a bloody nose, Lila's mother was pulling her back into her house, and a
woman I'd never seen before, who was yelling in some crazy language I'd
never heard 'till then, was hitting me with a broom as I was trying to
choke Red to death! I guessed, correctly, that it was Red's mother, so I
let loose his throat as I popped him one in the eye.
heals all wounds, and a few days later, following a bad rain, Red, with
a nice shiner, was out in the street playing stickball with another,
blond-haired, kid, whom I'd seen a few times before. I remember the
first time I noticed this kid. It was when he was running out of his
house with his mother in hot pursuit, yelling at him that he HAD to take
his vitamins. This was during the time when polio was still prevalent,
and the kid's mother had a bottle of Geritol and a spoon in her hands
while chasing him.
house and mine were only about five doors away from each other, and
since they were semi-attached, really only two and a half houses away.
Back then, the streets were still packed dirt, believe it or not. The
sewer installation hadn't arrived yet, either, and so playing stickball
was no mean feat after a rainfall. I remember seeing the fun Red and the
blond kid were having and from my vantage point, which was the front
stoop of my house, it was like being on the first base line at Ebbett's
Field. They were good, too.
looks could kill, I would have melted Red into the ground with my glare,
not so much because we'd fought, but because his mother, who I found out
was known as Mrs. Hansen, had told my mother about the fight. A
squealer! Naturally, my mother immediately took Mrs. Hansen's side and
laid into me with her usual Irish gusto. Words were my mother's weapon
of choice, but when extremely provoked, which my older brothers were
better capable of doing, the "Ironing Cord" came out. I'd bet
to this day the manufacturer of that cord, which when used as intended
was plugged into the iron in one end and the outlet at the other, would
be surprised to learn it could be used as effectively as a Inquisition
device in meting out punishment. Anyway, the traitorous Red was having a
good time while I was nursing a sore nose and an even sorer butt. My
mother had been extremely provoked, I discovered.
wanted in the ball game and as luck would have it, fortune smiled. Mr.
DeWitt, who lived in the house attached to ours and was aware of the
previous confrontation, was also watching the game while working in his
yard. He apparently noticed the longing in my eyes and called the two
kids over. He told them something and then called me over. I went, but
not willingly, since my mother was also on the stoop and one
"cording" a week was plenty for me. Mr. DeWitt introduced us
to each other and told me that he'd just informed "the boys"
that Lila Dawson was moving to California the next week. What?
Heartbreak was a new experience for me, and I was having my first one!
Red was already almost in tears and immediately I almost felt a kinship
equal to that of Romeo learning of Juliet's demise. Mr. DeWitt was
saying something about us being "...silly fighting over a girl to
start with, and that once she's was gone, you boys will need to make a
new friend." And, "How about you guys getting to know each
other and maybe play a little ball together?"
DeWitt was a man with understanding and the milk of human kindness. But
for me the news about Lila was tough enough; playing ball with the soon
to be former boyfriend of sweet Lila was pushing a little too hard, I
thought. But then I looked over at my house, saw my mother's face, which
had the look of "DO IT" written all over it, and reluctantly
agreed to give it a shot or something to that effect. The introductions
were made. Red was Ritchie Hansen, who didn't like being called Red, it
turned out. The other, Roy Carlsen, I soon discovered had also had a
crush on Lila. But because he lived farther down than we did, he was
considered a foreigner, almost, so I didn't have to fight him. Following
that introduction, we did play ball, and many times, over many
more than fifty-three years later, I can't think of two guys I remember
as well from that time, who together with me became the "Three
Musketeers" of Dictum Court; who played for hours on end with no
fights; who shared our families, yards, and even clothes, at times. Roy
Carlsen's mother made the meanest krumcrackers this side of Norway, Mrs.
Hansen' s coffee was the toast of the block, and my mother sometimes
made Irish Soda Bread, all of which found their way into each of our
homes at one time or another. Roy's father could build a rowboat with
only a hand ax and a hammer; Ritchie's father played a mean accordion;
and mine, a fiddle. I remember a few jam sessions at my house in which
Norwegian and Irish traditional music bellowed and sang out the windows,
while a few neighbors sat on their stoops or porches, listening and
tapping their feet. Other times, we'd gather around the Carlsens'
television to watch "I Remember Mama," an early TV show about
an immigrant Norwegian family in San Francisco. The program was
sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee, which became the coffee of choice on
our block, whether it was with soda bread or krumcrakers.
went our separate ways some time during high school, but later met again
a few times in the Beach. Roy moved to California after his stint in the
army, married a beautiful Hawaiian woman, and has several children of
his own now. Ritchie and I stayed in closer contact for a time until I
moved to where I am now. Our wives became friends after we married.
Ritchie had a daughter and I two sons. My oldest son is HIS namesake,
even though we both have the same first names. Sadly, Ritchie died
unexpectedly a while back. He had a full life, in his way, and I will
always remember him, as I will Roy, with that special affection of a
youth shared together--and a lifetime of memories to treasure.