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Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part Five

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The phrase "during the war" played an out-sized role in my suburban New York upbringing, and it meant only one conflict - not the Vietnam War, which raged for my entire childhood, producing casualty counts nightly on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, waning only in adolescence; not the Korean War, which produced several veterans who became parents of my school mates; not even the Great War, during which my grandfather flew planes that were little more than canvas kites with machine guns strapped to them.

No, "the war" invariably meant the big one itself, the Second World War, which transformed society at almost every level, made the United States into a superpower, and scattered American culture to the far ends of the Earth, where it took root, for good and bad. World War II was New York's war, of course - directed by a New Yorker who traced his roots to Dutch immigrant Claes van Rosenvelt, whose farm covered the portion of midtown Manhattan now occupied by the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, and Macy's. It was the center of shipping, the terminus for railroads and troop trains. the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 10,000 men and plenty of women too, and it produced both the USS Missouri upon which the Empire of Japan surrendered to Douglas MacArthur, former commandant of West Point who served at St. Mihiel with my grandfather in the previous war, and wood-planked PT 109, which turned a gangly Massachusetts lieutenant, whose family lived in Riverdale and Bronxville while the patriarch raked in millions in the city, into a national hero and future President.

Pre-war and post-war in New York are generally real estate descriptors, or at least they were before the latest building boom or two. The war changed the landscape. It made New York a world capital, center of post-war American commerce, headquarters to the United Nations, financial capital of the global conflict's sole undamaged victor. Public housing exploded, and slum clearance accelerated. Robert Moses really became the Power Broker under unofficial war powers - the Throgs Neck and the Whitestone bridges went up with war looming; with victory won, Moses had virtually cart blanche to build highways through the 1960s.

My own arrival in the post-war world was 17 years after Hitler's suicide and the dual atomic bombs, incubated as they were at 270 Broadway, with technical facilities at Columbia, tested in the western deserts, and immortalized as the Manhattan Project. In our suburban precincts, the war in the 60s meant either Europe or the South Pacific. My grandfather, a fighter pilot in the Great War in France, trained new fliers in the rural south, ruining what remained of his tenuous health. Four uncles wore the uniform in World War Two. His oldest son Thomas Quinlan, my Godather, served a Stateside Army stint. Gus Ryan was a tanker in Western Europe, and I remember the old dud shells used as door-stoppers and the German field glasses on the porch at Lake Mahopac. Lou Dermako out of the coal fields on Pennsylvania was a front line Marine officer fighting island to island in the Pacific, and George Quinlan a Navy petty officer driving LSTs to the those same bloody beaches. They met on a homebound troop ship after the war, future brothers in law.  None of them talked about the details of the war very much. 

In the 1980s, I interviewed a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He lived with his wife on Tibbett Avenue in Kingsbridge, just north of West 231 Street in the Bronx. It was a neat little apartment and family photographs covered one of the tables in the living room where we sat for an hour of so. He'd been assigned to the Army Air Corps base at Wheeler Airfield near Honolulu, and when the Japanese attacked, he helped to get a small contingent of fighter planes into the air despite the devastation on the ground. At Wheeler on December 7th, 33 were killed and more than 70 wounded and much of the air wing destroyed on the ground. He returned to work for the Transit Authority in maintenance for forty years. He told me the interview was the first time he'd talked about Pearl Harbor in any detail, not even to his children. I asked him why he's risked his life to run across the tarmac to get the few remaining planes into the air and his answer has stayed with me since that afternoon in Kingsbridge. "They were killing my friends. What else could I do? They were killing my friends."

During that same period in Riverdale, writing stories for The Press, I got to know Stuart Elenko, a history teacher at the Bronx High School of Science and founder of the Holocaust Studies Center there. Stuart had assembled an important collection of artifacts from the European cauldron, including uniforms, propaganda, posters, Nazi insignia, and Jewish stars. He taught a generation of students to remember the brutality of the past and its grave lessons of man's inhumanity to man. I joined the Board of Directors of the Center and did what I could to promote its mission. During the time, I met quite a few residents of the apartment towers and garden homes of Riverdale and Kingsbridge who still carried tattooed numbers on their arms. One day, I asked Stuart (who was a child during the war) why he spent so much of his life creating the collection, building the center, and working with young people to understand the horrors of Nazi Europe, and Stuart's answer was so similar to the Pearl Harbor survivor's - "they killed my people."

Yet there was also a sense of glamor about "the war" in the New York I grew up in. Part of that related to popular culture and recent memories - Sinatra and the bobby soxers, the Stage Door Canteen, war bond rallies, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army, and VE and VJ Day celebrations in Times Square. And part of that living memory in New York was related to World War Two's permanent status as "the good war" in a era of decidedly bad U.S. military policy. As "the war" receded in actuality, replaced by gauzy memories in black and white, it competed with New York's Vietnam era protests, book-ended by the take over of Columbia's campus by militant students and  the infamous Hard Hat Riot of 1970 in lower Manhattan, in which two hundred construction workers armed with pipes and wrenches and other tools of their trade set upon a thousand or so high school and college kids protesting the war, callow bridge and tunnel kids mainly, carring signs and chanting against Nixon. Later, of course, I covered all manner of anti-war protests as a journalist - most were pretty tame and you came to know the familiar lefty faces - and finally marched on my own against the Bush Administration's disastrous and brutal adventurism in Iraq.

Despite its popular caricature as a hotbed of liberalism, New York is not anti-military. Quite the contrary. New York loves the American armed forces, celebrates the service of men and women in uniform, and - speaking in the kind generality that get sociologists in trouble - I think it's far to say that in part, New Yorkers love the U.S. military because of its reputation as a meritocracy, a leg up for those newly arrived or living below the poverty line. This quality was not always there, of course, and I remember well interviewing Roscoe Brown as a reporter for The Riverdale Press. Dr. Brown was then the president of Bronx Community College and one the borough's most respected public figures, but as a 21-year-old college kid he became a pilot in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He told the story of becoming the first American pilot to shoot down one of Germany's advanced jet fighters, in a battle for the skies over the Ploesti oil fields. Years later as a consultant, I worked with my friend Karen Davis on a campaign to raise funds and awareness to preserve Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama as a national monument. 

There are World War Two monuments all around New York, but they seem muted compared to the statues from the 1820s and the Civil War and up through the Great War. One of the most moving is the memorial to the Merchant Marine service, in Battery Park looking out toward the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. On spring days when I worked on down Broad Street, I'd sometimes wander over to eat lunch in the sun by the water, near the bronze figures created by sculptor Marisol Escobar on the rebuilt stone breakwater. To my eye, they seemed to be looking out to see for brothers who would never return from the waves. 

In most office pre-war buildings in midtown, there's a simple bronze plaque dedicated to those who died in the conflict. A few years ago when I was working in the old Daily News Building - also known as the Daily Planet in the first Superman movie; that's Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent coming through the revolving doors on East 42nd Street - and I stopped to look at the memorial on the wall next to the newsstand. The lobby is famous for the huge, slowly turning globe set in the floor with lines on the floor running to imaginary points around the world. There's also an anemograph that displays wind speed and direction from instruments on the roof. When the tabloid's founder, the ultra-conservative Colonel  Joseph Medill Patterson, heard about plans for the weather station, he famously scoffed at the designers: "Weather charts! What the people want are murder charts - some kind of map of the metropolitan area where the latest crimes could be chalked up." I enjoyed walking through that lobby almost every day I worked in the building, and the plaque itself was contrast to the ambitions of a newsaper's bold public space (a newspaper, I might add, that had long since moved to the far West Side and a drab box near the highway). There were the names of typesetters, and copy editors, and ad salesmen, and compositors like my father. I imagined the returning Daily News veterans stopping to look at that simple memorial and remember as they picked up cigarettes at the newsstand. And I thought that it was these returning veterans who really built the post-war New York that was so familiar to me.

They were all men of course, but their impact on the landscape - physical, intellectual, political - can't be understated. Anthony Dominick Benedetto, later known as a Tony Bennett, whose Central Park painting studio aerie Steve Manzi and I visited one morning during a campaign to create a new public high school for the performing arts in Queens, was a member of the 63rd Infantry Division in France and Germany. Hugh Carey, 51st Governor of New York and the man who saved New York City during its fiscal crisis in the 1970s, an enlisted man who rose to rank of Colonel in Europe, who I got to know late in life through his generous and whipsmart daughter Susan Carey Dempsey, long my colleague and co-conspirator. Lew Rudin, head of one of New York's famed real estate families, who I met several times through his son Bill (our landlord at 55 Broad Street), a real builder of the city who led a coalition to partner with Gov. Carey and avoid the city's financial ruin, was a returning U.S. Army sergeant. David Dinkins, the most gentlemanly of the Mayors of New York City that I've known and interviewed, a returning U.S. Marine who refused to let racial quotes block his way into war-time service. 

These were men who didn't focus on "the war" very much. Like my uncles, they quickly moved to build new lives. But that service, that war, was still just there, right along the pavement, one of the largest communal enterprises in the nation's history, and focusing event for a huge city emerging from the Great Depression. It threatened death and destruction, and killed tens of millions; but in the American story it also offered opportunity and enforced discipline and a sense of common purpose in a generation of young men and women. That created the New York landscape I grew up in, a landscape that began to crumble in the 1970s to be sure, but one that retained a permanent outline sketched by the war years.

One aspect of those times that David Weiner's Mad Men captures so well (despite its other faults) is that restlessness of those veterans to build and to move and to create something different. When Roger Sterling talks about "the war" he could easily slide into a dinner conversation at my grandmother's house in Yonkers. Thirty years on, with another war raging, it was still a presence. Just like like the black and white photographs of men in uniform on some of the walls, the old Army Air Corps major's cap that hung on a corner of my grandmother's bed.

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