Growing up in Sunnyside During World War II by Alvin Goldman
My residence in Sunnyside was of relatively short duration. It began at roughly age 9 months and continued to about 7 years of age, though my later attendance at Bryant High School significantly extended my ties to the neighborhood.
Initially we lived in the Celtics but at about age 4 or 5, we moved to 47-51 40th Street, a building with two other boys my age: David Schultz and Jay Krokow. Warren (Billy) Koffler lived across the street and Irwin Goldstein lived up the block. There was a vacant dirt lot at the corner of the avenue and a candy store adjacent to it. Typical of little boys in that era, we played war more often than we played cowboys and Indians, and had the usual disputes as to who was going to be on which side. The corner lot provided a convenient battle ground since, if anyone had a shovel, we could scratch out of the dirt our version of a foxhole.
I recall one occasion when some older boys took possession of the hole we made because they had a few potatoes and wanted to roast “mickeys.” There was ample ignitable debris on the lot for them to build a small fire. We continued our play elsewhere. Eventually their task was completed, and for our contribution they let us taste a potato. It was delicious.
During the war new toys were unavailable. As the youngest of three boys, however, I had hand-me-downs to play with though some were well worn. The war also meant learning to pull down the blackout shades and turn off lights when nighttime air raid sirens sounded. With the lights out, however, we were able to peek out the windows to watch giant search lights scanning the skies. The daytime counterpart involved obeying the helmeted civil defense warden’s directions to the nearest shelter if we were playing in the 43rd street park or were simply walking in the neighborhood during a day-time drill. Another lesson taught during the war was to be quiet and subdued when walking by a house or apartment with a gold star in a window indicating that an occupant was mourning a serviceman’s death.
Mom knitted woolen mittens and scarves to be sent to our troops and more than once I accompanied her to the Red Cross office where she donated blood. We also helped the war effort by piling used newspapers separately and not pushing them down the incinerator with other trash, and by saving empty food cans. Some of the cans were used for collecting trimmed fat and rendered grease. When filled, these were brought to the butcher shop where, as I remember, we were paid a few cents per pound for what would be used in making soap and munitions. Boys (and possibly some girls) had a special recycling task to help the war effort. We were supposed to keep our eyes alert for discarded gum and cigarette wrappers from which we carefully separated the aluminum foil which was added to a stack that eventually would be collected as well. The then vacant lots on Queens Boulevard under the El were a good catch basin for such wind blown trash. However, I don’t remember what the collection point was for these and other types of non-fat scrap such as paper and cans.
The war intruded as well on our school activities at P.S. 150 where, occasionally, there were air raid drills as well as fire drills. During an air raid drill, we marched into the hall outside our classroom and sat on the floor until the drill ended. As I remember, we were instructed to bow our heads with our arms and hands protectively over them. The last drill came weeks before VE Day, as I recall, and lasted long enough so that teachers were calling upon some of the more talented kids to perform a tap dance, recite a poem or lead the entire hallway in singing patriotic and other popular songs.
Two memorable events preceded our move from Sunnyside to Jackson Heights a few months after the end of WWII. The first was a block party (actually it extended over several blocks) celebrating VJ Day. Lights were strung up, food and drinks were served, music (whether live or recorded I don’t know) was played, and there was dancing in the streets. It continued well into the night—long after us young ones were sent to bed.
The other memorable event started with a sign in the window of the candy store adjacent to the lot across from our apartment house. It announced that a limited amount of bubble gum would be delivered to the store at a stated day and time, the price per piece, and that there would be a limit of one piece per customer. Kids were lining up on the sidewalk in front of the store entrance well before the designated time and eventually the proprietor came out and announced that the delivery would not be made until the next day. I had no idea of what bubble gum was but my older brothers and their friends assured me it was great and, with some exaggeration, described the size of bubbles that could be blown.
We lined up again the next day and eventually I was able to buy my allotted piece. It was paper wrapped, pink, and had a modified cube shape about three quarters of an inch in width and length. I was instructed by the other boys regarding the technique for chewing it until the height of the flavor was gone and then carefully use my tongue to stretch the substance and gently practice bubble blowing so as to not spit it out. We must have been at it for two hours when we were called in for dinner, carefully placed our prize on the side of our plate, and after eating, resumed blowing bubbles and pealing gum off our faces as they burst. Our Mom warned us to be careful to not get it on our clothes and finish playing with it before going to sleep.
My older brother and I reminded each other of that warning as we lay in bed still chewing and trying to blow bubbles of historic proportions. When we woke the next morning we conferred about how to get the gum and pink stains out of our bed sheets before Mom found out. As best I recall, we ended up pulling our blankets over our soapy, wet sheets hoping to figure out a better cleaning technique when we returned from school. Since making our beds was not our normal routine, Mom, of course, soon discovered what had occurred. As a result we were banned from chewing gum for a week (or maybe a month), a punishment of little consequence inasmuch as it was weeks before there was another bubble gum delivery.
Posters to encourage recycling for the war effort
Alvin Goldman’s earliest years were spent on the south side of Queens Boulevard. Attending PS 150 briefly, his connection to the neighborhood strengthened as he met up with a group of Sunnysiders at Bryant High School. He married his high school sweetheart Ellie Paris with whom he has been married for 60 years. A law professor at the University of Kentucky and labor-management arbitrator in a broad range of industries, the couple have retired to Denver, Colorado.