ADMIN NOTE: This is a vey special contribution by a friend and mentor (and my High School Prinicipal), Stan Friedland. He was quite an inspiration to me many years ago and I’m happy that not only are we in contact today, but that he took the time to add his recollections to the collective body of Fourteen Again. Thanks, doc!
My 14th year was spent in the last half of 1945 and the first half of 1946. I was living in the Pride of Judea Children’s Home, which was an orphanage located in the East New York section of Brooklyn, New York. Like most kids there, I had one parent still living, my mother, but she had developed Multiple Sclerosis when I was four and my elder brother and I had been placed in another orphanage, followed by an abusive foster home, from which we had run away. We then were placed in this orphanage when I was nine (1940) and I lived here until 1947, when I turned sixteen.
In early 1945, right after his 17th birthday, my brother Bernie, three and one half years older than me, joined the Navy and left the Pride (as we called it). This was the first time in my life that we had ever been apart and I remember being quite ambivalent about it. We had a close and loving relationship and we had been through a lot together. My mother, a magnificent woman, had made no bones about drumming into the both of us that he was to watch out for me and I was to listen to him. Our father had died a young man when I was just four and Bernie had been my main male presence in all areas, and an excellent one as well. While I always was able to handle myself without real need for his protection, nonetheless, he had given me his love, his attention, the occasional discipline when I got out of line and the continued prodding to do well in school because that’s what “would make Mom happy!’ Since we both revered our mother, that had to be our priority agenda; we could have fun, but we had to stay out of trouble and I had to continue to do well in school.
The school part had its own irony. Bernie didn’t like school, or at least the academic aspects of it. He was a terrific craftsman and could do anything with his hands. He was more than content when the Pride, as was its custom, evaluated each of its children in their eighth grade and then sent him off to a vocational high school to learn a trade. He was a casual student until it came to projects. If he liked that work, he’d produce an extraordinary, high quality project that would knock your socks off. But, in subjects such as English, History, Math and the like, he’d be content to do just enough to earn C’s. Fortunately for me, I had a reverse set of skills and interests. I was disinterested in crafts, and could barely bang in a nail successfully. But, at the end of my eighth grade, I won the medal as the outstanding scholar in my graduating class, which lit up my mom’s face with a great smile, especially when I presented her with that medal. Of course, I was sent to an academic high school where I even made the Honors sections in English and Social Studies. I was on course to be the first one from my entire family lineage ever to go to college. It was the major source of happiness for my mom and that fueled my drive each and every day.
As one readily can conclude, my brother and I idolized our mother. We saw her each Sunday for a two hour visit. Her “home” was the Jewish Sanitarium (spelled that way) For Chronic Diseases; an ugly name for an ugly place. We’d always find a way to get there for our weekly visit, usually with an aunt or uncle, or else through any other adult whom we would press into service because we couldn’t go otherwise. We made damn sure that never happened because our mom lived for those visits, and, quite frankly, so did we.
So, here was July, 1945, my 14th birthday and I was in the middle of my first ever year without the presence of my brother. Since the war was over in Europe and the Japanese were about to surrender in the Pacific, my brother, a late entry into the Navy, would be among the first to be discharged, but that would not be until the early part of 1946. Then, he’d be going to live with our favorite aunt, who regrettably, had room in her apartment only for him. As I remember, I didn’t seem to mind. As I said earlier, I looked at our year apart and though I had missed him because of our close and loving relationship, I realized that I had wanted to be on my own. Everyone does at some stage and age. Given my rocky background, I knew that I was more than “tough enough” to handle any problem or situation. And I had several that year.
Athleticism was one of the main currencies of our orphanage, as it is in most social or school settings. I was a standout athlete in virtually every sport we played and especially in basketball, our most popular pastime. But, I was also small for my age during most of my childhood, even earning the nickname of “PeeWee”, which stuck with me even after I had my main growth spurt (during, of course, my 14th year) and shot up some six to eight inches. In fact, when my brother did come home from the Navy, after not seeing me for about a half year, we both were startled to find that “my big brother” was no longer my “big” brother. He had left me when he was half a head taller and now, I was half a head higher than he! We both laughed quite a bit at this reversal because neither he nor I had realized it was taking place.
But, during that year, the rivalries that I had on the ball field with several kids were spilling over into some hot-tempered confrontations. We all took our games seriously and we all tended to be sore losers. Since I usually came out the winner on the field, that result didn’t rest easily with some of the kids. And I had not one, or two but three of my toughest fights that year. Frankly, I never liked fighting and I tried to avoid them in whatever honorable way possible. I wasn’t nearly as good a fighter as I was an athlete, mainly because of my size, but I never sidestepped a fight either. In the past, my brother, sometimes unbeknownst to me, would head off my impending fights, despite my protests. But now, I was on my own and so be it. I lost my first fight to probably the toughest kid in my age group. He was a husky kid with a sharp temper & he simply used his weight to get me in a tight headlock (funny how you remember such things a million years later). He even yelled, “I’m not letting you go until you say, I give up.” I think I said, “Go fuck yourself” and on we went until one of the Supervisors came by and broke us up. Only a week later, we got into it again, but this time, I stayed out of his reach and landed some great punches that bloodied his face and the kids there quickly broke it up so he could get some medical care. Why did I feel so good? You’re darn right. Best feeling in the world; “macho-macho mannnn!”
The last fight was a humdinger as well. I used to walk to my high school, Thomas Jefferson, which was about 15 blocks away, whenever the weather permitted. On this day, I was walking with my best friend, Allen, a good athlete, but so thin that we called him, “Kid Candle; one blow and he’s out.” Along comes a kid from the neighborhood, also on his way to Jeff, who had been bullying Allen. He started taunting the two of us and I knew that he and I were on course for a collision. And collide we did. But, since we both didn’t want to be late for school, we didn’t grapple; we just started to box each other, all the while moving in the direction of school. And we boxed the entire route! We ended up at school a comical mess! We both were bleeding, our clothes were wet and dirty and we were thoroughly exhausted. We both had gotten our licks in, but given the way we looked and felt, we both had lost! We had two options; to turn around and go home, or, go to the school nurse. I wasn’t about to return to my orphanage in this condition and he had a sharp-tongued mother. Neither of us hesitated and we both went to the nurse. When she asked what had happened, I quickly said that we had had a hot touch football game that had gotten a little too physical. He quickly nodded in assent and we were able to get patched up and cleaned up enough to return to class. We both appreciated that ending and we became “almost friends” from that point on.
When I turned 14 in July of 1945, I already had been at Jefferson for one semester because I had been in the RA (Rapid Advance) Program in elementary school, which had enabled me to skip forward one semester. I’d do so again in high school, so that I wound up one year ahead, something I wouldn’t recommend for most boys, especially today. As stated before, I was small for my age, so that when I tried out for the JayVee basketball team at a school that was perennially a powerhouse, I quickly was cut. But, I also had great skills as a diver and I quickly made the school swim team and was always in contention with the other diver for the number one spot. But, I never had had any coaching and diving requires it if one is to improve. Alas, our coach had been a distance swimmer and he was not even going to try to find the funds needed to bring in a diving coach. So, my good potential went nowhere and my promising skills never really matured. But, I did enjoy the experience. Competitive diving is like doing a solo number on stage. The silence is deafening as the diver takes his mark. I’ll always remember the sound of the water lapping up against the pool against the thick silence of the room. Then the fullest focus on my approach; for me, a five-stepper; hit the board and go up, not out, execute, arch, point those toes and make as clean an entry as possible. Really quite exacting, quite demanding and loaded with pressure because you only get one try per dive. I occasionally did well, but most of the time I only picked up paltry points for my team. However, it was nice to read my name in the school newspaper and winning two letters was indeed thrilling as well.
As you can see, fourteen was a coming of age year for me and a very important one at that. Those early adolescent years are “linkage” years which then segue into that all important bridge into “older adolescence”. If those links are sound, they propel you forward with a healthy momentum into your next age-stage year. My being on my own for the first time and my handling those challenges well did much for my self confidence, a vital ingredient in growing healthy self-esteem. It really didn’t matter that I lived in an orphanage, or that my brother lived elsewhere. I still had him nearby; I still had my mother nearby; I’d see them both every week for my needed “fix”. But, I was learning to fly solo and that’s what I did that year for the very first time. It felt good!
Footnote: I thoroughly enjoyed my trip down memory lane. It’s so much better this second time around. And fourteen is such a great place to visit!