by Steven Wolfe
I’ve heard that 46th Street between Skillman and 39th Avenue will soon be renamed Ethel Plimack Way. The Plimacks lived almost exactly across the street from us and we knew them for many years. My mother was friendly with Ethel and the children matched up with me and my brother in age. Sylvia was in my class in public school and Henry and my brother Robin were friendly, with Larry Kappel making up a threesome that was frequently seen together.
My father’s first auto was a 1939 Plymouth that he bought in or about 1945. He used it for several years until he finally was able to purchase a new car, a 1947 Chevrolet. Remember, no cars were produced during the war and getting a new 1947 car was a big deal. The 1939 Plymouth was then sold to Maurice Plimack and remained in working order for many years. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. In the same year, Harold Zuckerman, father of Carol (“Carlie”) and Rita, bought a 1947 Studebaker, a car which generated a lot of attention because it looked the same from either end so you could not always tell whether it was coming or going. Harold Zuckerman taught at Stuyvesant High School where he was also the college guidance counselor. He helped me immeasurably during the college application process. He also learned my SAT scores and disclosed them to my parents, adding to their setting high standards for me which I only achieved sometimes.
About ten years ago, I drove to Sunnyside with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. I parked on 46th Street across from 39-49, my childhood home. We were looking at the house when the door to the Plimack house opened and an old woman emerged. I couldn’t believe it at first but it was Ethel Plimack. To be certain I went over to her and asked her if she was indeed Ethel Plimack. She acknowledged that she was. I introduced myself to her and reminded her that I used to live across the street, pointing to the house at 39-49. She scrutinized me for perhaps two seconds, and said, “You used to be skinny.” She then started to walk away but I drew her back into a conversation. While I was amazed and even happy to see her, she had no desire to reminisce and be nostalgic. I gave her a hug and away she went.
The most amazing fact about Henry was something he did as a young teenager. The time in question, he was playing at a park in Astoria near the banks of the East River. Those who are familiar with that tributary know that it has a very strong current. Mariners are aware that upstream, near the northern tip of Manhattan, the waters are extremely dangerous even for small boats.
On this one occasion, Henry was nearby when a girl fell into the river and started screaming for help. As I later learned, she was not a girl that Henry knew, but a stranger. Nevertheless, Henry immediately jumped into the river, saved the girl from drowning and pulled her to the shore where she was lifted out of the water by people standing on the shore. His was a singular act of bravery and selflessness. It may have changed the views of all of his friends about him, especially when he was awarded a Carnegie Medal for bravery later in the year. You may know someone for many years and yet not know the inner essence of that person. Henry may have seemed an unlikely hero but he certainly exhibited true heroism on that occasion.