June 1940-October 1940
Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War
Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews.When the first shock came in June of 1940--the nomination for the presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh, America's international aviation hero, by the Republican Convention at Philadelphia--my father was thirty-nine, an insurance agent with a grade school education, earning a little under fifty dollars a week, enough for the basic bills to be paid on time but for little more. My mother--who'd wanted to go to teachers' college but couldn't because of the expense, who'd lived at home working as an office secretary after finishing high school, who'd kept us from feeling poor during the worst of the Depression by budgeting the earnings my father turned over to her each Friday as efficiently as she ran the household--was thirty-six. My brother, Sandy, a seventh-grader with aprodigy's talent for drawing, was twelve, and I, a third-grader aterm ahead of himself--and an embryonic stamp collector inspiredlike millions of kids by the country's foremost philatelist,President Roosevelt--was seven.
We lived in the second-floor flat of a small two-and-a-half-family house on a tree-lined street of frame wooden houses with redbrick stoops, each stoop topped with a gable roof and fronted by a tiny yard boxed in with a low-cut hedge. The Weequahic neighborhood had been built on farm lots at the undeveloped southwest edge of Newark just after World War One, some half dozen of the streets named, imperially, for victorious naval commanders in theSpanish-American War and the local movie house called, afterFDR's fifth cousin-and the country's twenty-sixth president-the Roosevelt. Our street, Summit Avenue, sat at the crest of theneighborhood hill, an elevation as high as any in a port city thatrarely rises a hundred feet above the level of the tidal salt marsh tothe city's north and east and the deep bay due east of the airportthat bends around the oil tanks of the Bayonne peninsula andmerges there with New York Bay to flow past the Statue of Libertyand into the Atlantic. Looking west from our bedroom's rear windowwe could sometimes see inland as far as the dark treeline ofthe Watchungs, a low-lying mountain range fringed by great estatesand affluent, sparsely populated suburbs, the extreme edgeof the known world--and about eight miles from our house. Ablock to the south was the working-class town of Hillside, whosepopulation was predominantly Gentile. The boundary with Hillsidemarked the beginning of Union County, another New Jerseyentirely.
We were a happy family in 1940. My parents were outgoing, hospitablepeople, their friends culled from among my father's associatesat the office and from the women who along with my motherhad helped to organize the Parent-Teacher Association at newlybuilt Chancellor Avenue School, where my brother and I werepupils. All were Jews. The neighborhood men either were in businessfor themselves--the owners of the local candy store, grocerystore, jewelry store, dress shop, furniture shop, service station, anddelicatessen, or the proprietors of tiny industrial job shops over bythe Newark-Irvington line, or self-employed plumbers, electricians,housepainters, and boilermen--or were foot-soldier salesmenlike my father, out every day in the city streets and in people'shouses, peddling their wares on commission. The Jewish doctorsand lawyers and the successful merchants who owned big storesdowntown lived in one-family houses on streets branching offthe eastern slope of the Chancellor Avenue hill, closer to grassy,wooded Weequahic Park, a landscaped three hundred acres whoseboating lake, golf course, and harness-racing track separated theWeequahic section from the industrial plants and shipping terminalslining Route 27 and the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct east ofthat and the burgeoning airport east of that and the very edge ofAmerica east of that--the depots and docks of Newark Bay, wherethey unloaded cargo from around the world. At the western end ofthe neighborhood, the parkless end where we lived, there residedan occasional schoolteacher or pharmacist but otherwise few professionalswere among our immediate neighbors and certainly none of the prosperous entrepreneurial or manufacturing families.
The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week;the women worked all the time, with little assistance from laborsavingdevices, washing laundry, ironing shirts, mending socks,turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishingfurniture, sweeping and washing floors, washing windows,cleaning sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursingthe sick, shopping for food, cooking meals, feeding relatives, tidyingclosets and drawers, overseeing paint jobs and household repairs,arranging for religious observances, paying bills and keepingthe family's books while simultaneously attending to theirchildren's health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct,birthdays, discipline, and morale. A few women laboredalongside their husbands in the family-owned stores on the nearbyshopping streets, assisted after school and on Saturdays by theirolder children, who delivered orders and tended stock and did thecleaning up.