We spent the summer of 1945 at a bungalow colony a few miles from the town of South Fallsburg, New York. It was in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, a Jewish outpost of New York City known as the Borscht Belt. Our small, shotgun style, white-and-green clapboard cottage had a basic kitchen, a bare bones bedroom and bath with a screened-in sleeping porch. It was primitive; the kitchen featured an old gas stove and a classic galvanized tin-lined wooden ice box.
In the days before universal air conditioning, a mountain cottage was a blessed escape from the steaming asphalt pavement and the stuffy railroad flats of the hot and humid city. The mountain air was dry and you could count on a cool breeze almost every night. It was a paradise for my brother and me. We spent the summer exploring the woods, playing softball, wading in the local streams, swimming in cool lakes and hotel pools. There was little public transportation and cars were rare because of gas rationing. No one thought twice about hitchhiking from place to place; the only other alternative was walking. Even though I was only eleven years old my usually protective mother was unconcerned about my accepting rides from strangers.
The virulent terror that hovered over every family with children that summer was polio, infantile paralysis, the crippling disease that had hobbled President Roosevelt and now waited menacingly in every swimming pool, poised to strike down my contemporaries and me without warning.
The scourge hit close to home one afternoon as we watched a friend on a gurney being wheeled into an ambulance. The day before, the ironically named Lucky and I had been target shooting with his BB gun. Rumors circulated that he was being kept alive inside a nightmarish mechanical iron lung; the summer would end without his return. Conventional wisdom blamed swimming pools, probably with some justification, for the spread of the infection and, for the rest of that summer, we shunned the pool at the nearby hotel and cooled off in local lakes and streams.
There were twenty cottages in Stuzins Bungalow colony. The units were arranged in a circle around the large central field that served as our softball diamond. Each identical cottage housed two families, most with two or more pre-adolescent kids. Fathers appeared on Fridays before sundown and left on Sundays.
Summer jobs were easy to find and I worked every morning selling papers for a man named John Katzenbach who was the primary distributor of New York City newspapers to the resort hotels in that part of the Catskills. He hired boys and an occasional girl from the Bungalow colonies. There were scores of hotels in the area, ranging from small ones with as few as 40 guests to well known resorts that boasted 18 hole golf courses, lakes, swimming pools, tennis courts and playhouses called “Casinos.” Several afternoons a week, I also worked as a caddy at the nearby Concord Hotel, the exclusive top of the resort pyramid. It boasted two 18 hole PGA golf courses and had a resident orchestra with live entertainment every night.
Shortly after dawn each morning, John would pick us up, put us in the back of his old panel truck and drop us at the hotels that were the start of our routes. Some of these routes, the ones with large, upscale Catskill Tudor style hotels like the Windsor or the Ratner (later the Raleigh) on them, were the plums, doled out on the basis of seniority because they consisted of just one or two stops. Other routes consisted of as many as six or seven small hotels and even some larger bungalow colonies. On those routes, we had to walk from one to the next, sometimes several miles with a heavy load of papers.
As soon as I arrived at my first hotel, I would set up close to the entrance of the dining room arranging the papers so the guests going in for breakfast could see the headlines. The papers ran the gamut from the Daily News, the Mirror, the Times, the Herald Tribune to The World Telegram, The Sun, The Journal American, and The Morning Telegraph. Then there were the Yiddish papers; the Forward, The Morning Journal and der Tag. There was a steady demand for the Daily Racing Form. I also carried the weekly German refugee papers like der Aufbau and der Staadt Zeitung, and for the unreconstructed radical lefties, the Daily Worker.
Prices were flexible; at upscale hotels, a nickel paper sold for a quarter. The same paper at a bungalow colony on my way home would go for a dime. There were always tips when I saved papers for regular customers, or sympathy tips when I would tell stories about how poor my family was, that I was a recent refugee or trying to save money for college. Because I spoke German, I got along well in Yiddish, which was already dying out among my contemporaries.
I was soon rolling in money, and no matter how many nickels I dropped into the pinball machines that I was addicted to, I was still bringing home $4 to $5 a day and as much as $10 on a Sunday. When my father came up on Friday night he would give me my weekly allowance of fifty cents. At the hotels, I would trade a newspaper for breakfast, the high point of the Jewish Resort Hotel experience: herring, kippers, fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox, rugelach, bialys, onion rolls, and, although I avoided them, the omnipresent stewed prunes. Often, I got a ride to the next hotel from a hotel chauffeur in return for another paper.
Usually, I was done by 11:00 am and would hitchhike back to our colony for a day of caddying, swimming, hiking, softball or exploring. Hitchhiking was safe, but there were occasional adventures. The sun was hot, and because of the war, cars were few and far between, so there wasn’t much choice of rides. Most of the rides were with farmers and local deliverymen, though sometimes you’d get a ride in a limousine. These prewar long, black Caddies and Lincolns often were long distance taxis carrying families to bungalow colonies or hotels. On Fridays, the limousines would bring up the fathers and on Sundays they’d take them back. The drivers were self-employed and they would pick us up to distribute their business cards to a very competitive industry. They were very enterprising; late one morning, a limousine full of male passengers picked me up. There were seven incredibly dirty, smelly, disoriented derelicts in the back and jump seat, but there was room for me in the front. The driver made several stops, dropping off two or three of his charges at the kitchen doors of hotels. It turned out that this was a kind of migrant labor force delivery service. The men were from the streets of the Bowery, the home of the homeless; they were shanghaied to work as dishwashers in the hotel kitchens. They would be put up in bunkhouses and paid a few bucks a day. Payday was once a month and most of them would take a Trailways bus back to the Thunderbird-fueled lives. Those were the good old days before dish washing machines ended this triangle trade. While in the mountains, they cleaned up and dried out. At the end of the summer, some shipped south to Florida for the winter resort season in Miami. The remainder found their way back to the Uncle Sam hotels and the sidewalk grates of the Bowery. Today’s “homeless problem” is partially due to technological advances.
I had my own bizarre hitch hiking adventure. One late morning, an old station wagon stopped for me. There were eight people in the back, foreign looking men and women, speaking a strange Slavic sounding language that I couldn’t identify. I had a creepy feeling but I was stuck squeezed into a seat. The car pulled up to one of the Italian resort hotels and everybody got out. They seemed to be a troupe of jugglers and sidewalk entertainers. They moved around the grounds of the hotel dancing, juggling, singing, banging on drums and cymbals and doing small magic tricks. Without asking, they handed me an old top hat and had me to go around to collect tips from the hotel guests. It was a frenetic scene, a sort of poor man’s three-ring circus. When the hat got heavy with coins, the leader would tip it into a leather satchel and send me around again. I felt really weird as they finished the performance and shepherded me back into the station wagon. They drove to another hotel and repeated the performance. Meanwhile, I was getting really spooked because they were now heading away from my bungalow colony and I had somehow joined their group. At the fourth stop, I really freaked; were the Gypsies about to kidnap me? When I saw an opportunity, I dropped the hat on a bench and ducked into the hotel’s casino where I knew I would find a pinball machine to hide behind. I listened to the hubbub outside as they performed their madcap act. Finally, I saw the station wagon drive away and I breathed a sigh of relief. I walked the more than four miles home looking behind me all the way.
Our colony was less than a quarter of a mile from Ratners Hotel where we were allowed to use the pool whenever there was no polio scare. Across the road from the hotel, on the crest of a hill was a beautifully manicured estate, a palatial white, colonnaded plantation house that dominated the countryside and served as the topic of endless gossip. It was always empty and ghostly quiet; over several summers we never saw anyone there.
The mansion supposedly belonged to Louis Lepke Buckhalter, a Jewish gangster of exceptional notoriety. He had been the head of Murder Inc., a novel criminal organization that performed murder for other gangsters. But Prohibition had ended a few years before and the bottom had fallen out of the contract extermination industry. Sensing political advantage, the NYC District Attorney, Thomas Dewey, dogged Lepke for his business excesses and put him on death row in Sing Sing. Dewey parlayed his gang-busting chops into the Governorship of New York and a memorable late inning losing run for President against Harry S Truman.
There was a babbling brook that ran through the bungalow colony and to the unguarded rear of Lepke’s deserted homestead. We spent many fantasy-filled hours exploring that hidden part of the property, looking for bodies, buried treasure, bleached bones, abandoned weapons or anything else our active pre-adolescent brains could conjure up. J. Edgar Hoover’s men must have been there first because we never found a thing.
I sold papers all summer long. This was my second summer in the business and I had a fairly good route and did very well. On the morning of August 11th I sold out every paper in under fifteen minutes. John came around with an additional supply and they sold out just as fast. The headlines that day read:
“US DROPS ATOMIC BOMB ON HIROSHIMA – CITY OF 200,000 TOTALLY OBLITERATED!”
Over the next few days, the headlines screamed out the news of the bombing of Nagasaki and then, finally, the signing of the unconditional Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor.
The war was finally over, Lepke had sat down on Old Sparky, and we returned to a different city where the lights had all come on and, for the first time in my life, for a short while, the world fell into peace.