Surviving God, Elvis and Nazis in the time of Duck and Cover
by Shaun Costello
I grew up in the Forest Hills Gardens, a small, incestuous, semi-gated community in the New York borough of Queens, about a twenty five minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan. The community surrounded the West Side Tennis Club, which was for years the Mecca of country club tennis in America. The ancient and famous came to compete here, dressed in their “Tennis Whites” and blue blazers, and wielding their wooden racquets. Bill Tildon, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Fred Perry, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, all came and conquered here. Then the Aussies arrived in the fifties; Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson. Even the modern “Open” era began here with Chris Evert, Jimmy Conners, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe, all competing in the Great American Tennis Tournament right here at the West Side Tennis Club. But by then the sport, and consequently the tournament, had outgrown the venue, and moved to Flushing, just a few stops away on the Long Island Railroad, leaving the ghosts of a golden era to compete on the grass courts of a decaying facility.
By the Sixties “The Gardens” had become a tawdry shadow of its former self. Dutch Elm Disease had taken hundreds of magnificent trees, planted early in the century by the community’s designers, and slowly but surely, the Gardens Corporation was losing its hold on the local demographics, which, up until then, had been its trump card. The little hamlet had been created before the outbreak of WW I, based on the design of British suburban communities just outside London. A series of row houses, arranged in Lanes and Circles, where everyone knew their neighbors and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends, and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into undesirables like Jews, Negroes, or Communists. The Gardens, you see, was a deeded community, which meant that the Gardens Corporation held a kind of lien on each property, preventing resale to the aforementioned, or any other member of the wretched refuse who had accumulated enough money to buy into a community where they obviously did not belong.
The Gardens became a magnet for recently socially unacceptable socialites. Old money families with a scandal on their hands, or the nouveau riche, who the old money could not condone. These were the families that first populated the Gardens. If society didn’t want them, they would create their own society. If their darling debutantes were persona non grata at the Manhattan Cotillions, they would create their own Cotillion, right here in the Forest Hills Gardens.
The son of the Steel Baron who married the daughter of the Mafia Don lived right across the street from the Bank President whose career was cut short by the embezzling scandal. This is where they came to live, right here in the comfort and safety of the little Hamlet that existed under the threat of the race-lien, which prevented the horror of waking up one morning with a Jewish neighbor.
The best laid plans of mice and racists came crashing to its inevitable conclusion, a victim of its own self fulfilled destiny, when Ralph Bunche Jr. applied for membership at the West Side Tennis Club. Bunche, winner of the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize, and a career public servant and diplomat, who was an Undersecretary General at the United Nations, had been taking tennis lessons at the club. After a few weeks the club pro suggested that he apply for membership. After all, he was an educated, elegant man, not to mention a famous career diplomat, favored by Presidents, just the kind of man the club wanted. But appearances can be deceiving. Just before welcoming him to their bosom the club’s membership committee discovered, to their horror, that Ralph Bunche Jr. was something else again. Something they had been successful in avoiding since their charter, many years before. Ralph Bunche Jr. was black. His light skinned appearance and elegant demeanor had fooled the club pro, as well as members he had contact with. The unthinkable had happened. A colored man at the West Side. A world turned inside out. Of course, his membership was turned down.
When the news got out the scandal was global. Headlines around the world all said pretty much the same thing: NEGRO DIPLOMAT REJECTED BY RACIST AMERICAN CLUB. There were, of course, many variations of this headline, each one driving another nail into the coffin that housed the remains of a once perfect little community. A place where a man knew his neighbors. A place where a man could walk in safety. A place where a man could go to sleep at night without the fear of waking up with a next-door neighbor of questionable heritage.
This was the end of the Forest Hills Gardens as its inhabitants knew it to be, and the beginning of a new world of racial flux and forced cohabitation, where Addison Wainwright lived right across the street from Morris Weintraub, much to Mr. Wainwright’s chagrin, and there was nothing he could do about it, other than taking a stroll over to the West Side Tennis Club, ordering a dry martini in the Gentleman’s Lounge, and conversing with cronies about the good old days when things were as things should be, and how a little circling of the wagons can be a good thing, and raising his glass with his comrades to someone’s toast of, “Well, at least we kept that god damned nigger out of here.”
It was at this point that my family moved to the Gardens from Nassau County, Forest Hills being recommended to my father by a Jewish friend of his who worked with him in Manhattan’s garment center. Recommended as a nice place to live, and you could take the subway to work, something that appealed to my father who was tired of commuting by railroad from Long Island. So we moved right in and looked for the nearest Catholic school.
During the Fifties the citizens of the Gardens, like most Americans, were preoccupied with watching Mickey Mouse Club and Ed Sullivan, listening to Elvis, building bomb shelters, and staying alert to the possibility that their next door neighbor might be a Communist agent. Daily ‘Duck and Cover’ drills were all the rage in primary schools, kids prompted by the emergency bell, jumping under their desks, and covering their little faces with their hands, as though a wooden school desk could prevent them from being vaporized by thermo-nuclear holocaust. The idea was to remain alert. You just never knew when the Ruskies would drop the big one.
I guess it has always been the case that girls, driven by estrogen, have played with dolls, as some kind of subliminal rehearsal for their maternal futures, just as boys, driven by testosterone, have played at war; carefully honing their skills for their future roles as hunters, gatherers, warriors, conquerors, slaughterers, debauchers, soldiers, sailors, kings, and whatever other glorious, and sometimes dubious endeavors men have created for themselves. When I was a kid boys played at war with toy guns, sighting the enemy in their crosshairs, and making gunshot sounds with their mouths; while their victim, playing the part of the wounded Jap or Kraut soldier, made the most realistic “ooph” bullet-wound sound that he could muster, and fell to the ground, trembling in the throes of the of death-dance, until finally still, he was called to the bosom of the almighty.
The victorious GI might go through the personal belongings of his victim, finding out that his name was Klaus Dornhoffer, or Akira Sato, and that the dead soldier had a wife and three kids back home. He might even sit down and write them a letter.
Dear Mrs. Dornhoffer/Sato, This morning I had the dubious honor of shooting your husband, Klaus/Akira, and I regret having to tell you this, but war is war, and your husband died a hero’s death and did not suffer.
Your faithful enemy, Audie Murphy.
On a rainy day, when it was too wet for the ‘Battle of the Backyard’, boys created warfare in miniature. I had a wooden model of a frontier outpost, complete with watchtowers at the corners, and little metal soldiers to man them. It was called Fort Apache, and no firewater-gulping, scalp-snatching redskin would ever get past its walls alive. My friend Dolphy had a great model of Camelot, complete with jousting knights in armor, ready for swordplay, and the slaughter of evil-doers. The future was not ignored, as recreations of Flash Gordon’s struggle against the Planet Mongo’s Emperor Ming, and his terrifying “Death Ray”, were played out in basements and backyards across America. The imaginary carnage created by boys prepared them for the struggle ahead, as they were told, almost on a daily basis, that the Russians were planning to drop an atomic bomb right in their backyards, and they had better be ready. By the summer of 1956, the bellicose boys of the Forest Hills Gardens were ready for anything.
It was into this atmosphere of military playacting, where nine-year-old boys had secret identities as Lieutenants, Captains, Naval Commanders, Fighter Pilots, and Drill Sergeants that George Leggett, a lifetime Nazi, worshipper of Hitler, creator of The American Nazi Youth Bund, and holocaust enthusiast made his appearance. He was twenty three years old, and had sought out the most racist American community he could find, trolling for accomplices. Sitting in a booth at the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, sipping coffee and chain-smoking Camels, he would expound on his fascist philosophies to mesmerized groups of ten-year-olds. He didn’t talk down to us, regardless of our age. Sometimes he spoke like a grown-up, and sometimes like a kid, but he always treated us as equals, an unusual experience for boys our age.
His grandiose plans included the creation of training camps in rural areas, where the youth of America, kids just like us, would receive the proper indoctrination and training that would prepare them for their military participation in something called “The America-First Brigade” that, when fully financed and armed, would take over the government of The United States, creating a new and stronger America, unhindered by the influence of the Jew-devils. An America to be proud of. An America for Americans. He told us not to worry, that we would all have a place in this new America, and he turned to me:
“Have you ever ridden in a tank?”
“Would you like to?”
“Well, you will son, you will. You see boys, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This young man has “Tank Commander” written all over him. What’s your name son?”
“Well Shaun, when we’re ready I’m going to give you the command of the ‘First American SS Panzer Division’. What do you think of that?”
So I was to be a Tank Commander. I had never done that before. I had been a lonely infantry soldier, manning his foxhole out on the perimeter. I had flown fighters for the “Flying Tigers”, out gunned and out manned by the Zeroes, defending Nanking against the Jap hordes. I had even smoked a peace pipe with Cochese, in an attempt to put an end to the war on the frontier. And now I would lead the First American SS Panzer Division in the Battle of Washington. How cool is that? Leggett told my friend Jimmy, “I can tell a fighter jock when I see one son, and you’re it”. He was giving Jimmy a Messerschmidt 109, with instructions to, “Take on the enemy wherever you find him”. So this new guy, George Leggett, would create games for us to play. He would lead us in fun battles against a make believe enemy. We would each have a military rank that would befit our station in his imaginary new nation. We might even get to go to summer camp, where we would learn the military techniques that would help us defend our neighborhood against the inevitable Soviet invasion. George Leggett would lead us in the best war games we had ever played. At least, that’s what we thought.
We were to refer to him as Commandant, and after a short while he seemed to know us all by name. We were instructed to tell our older brothers and their friends about his plans. They would be given important jobs in The New American Reich, and when the time came, provided with uniforms, weapons, tanks, planes, ships, and all the training necessary to learn how to use them. Leggett seemed to be using the younger kids as a conduit to the teenagers, who seemed to be his main target. The younger kids thought he was a crazy guy who would create games for them to play, but the teenagers of the Gardens saw him for what he was; a nigger hating, Jew bating fanatic, who was bent on creating a Nazi society right here in the USA. Leggett had heard the Forest Hills Gardens described as one of the most racially restricted communities in America, and came here assuming that he could sow the seeds of Nazism in its fertile, racist soil, and reap a rich harvest of accomplices, and financial donations. He was so lost in his zealous Nazi rapture that he had forgotten that the appeal of the National Socialist Party in Germany, back in the 1920’s, was to the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the hungry masses of a crumbling society. Hardly an accurate description of the citizenry of the Gardens, who were financially comfortable, and in some cases downright wealthy. George Leggett had made a major miscalculation.
Most of the population of the Forest Hills Gardens, who were taught right-from-wrong by parents who had long since circled their wagons, hated Jews as much as he did, but racism in America took on another form entirely, the subtlety of which Leggett could not comprehend. They owned the neighborhood, and controlled its demographics. They owned its clubs and organizations, and controlled their membership. Their war against the Jews was not a war of violence, it was a war of exclusion. They had created a closed society, and had no intention of allowing admission to anyone they deemed to be racially inferior. The Nazis were crude, vulgar gangsters whose idea of dealing with their enemies was genocide. The citizens of the Gardens simply denied them membership in their clubs. So George Leggett’s two-month recruitment drive, which he expected would provide his cause with a Brigade of swastika-wearing, goose-stepping, sig-heiling teenage studs, not to mention the financial donations of their wealthy, racist parents, yielded instead a small squad of ten-year-olds, who couldn’t wait to play tank commander, and fighter pilot. Not quite the Nordic supermen he anticipated leading in the overthrow of America.
I hadn’t seen the Commandant for a week or so when he appeared one evening involved in animated conversation with a group more receptive to his message. These were the teenage loser-morons who spent most of their time leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and hoping to look tough. They were blue-collar kids, whose families lived in apartment buildings on the outer fringe of Forest Hills. Pissed off have-nots, who lived on the edge of an upscale community, whose kids enjoyed benefits they knew in their hearts they would never share. Angry kids from angry families, whose fathers probably beat their mothers and took their frustrations out on them, before slipping into an alcoholic stupor, possibly the happiest moment of their day. There were always fights. They fought with each other constantly, and sometimes even picked fights with passers by. They were scary, angry kids, fascinating to watch, like a traffic accident happening right before your eyes. I was only nine, too little to bother with, so they paid no attention to me. Concealed by my age, I was able to get close enough to listen, and it never took long to hear that all the troubles with the world were caused by Niggers, Puerto Ricans, and Jews. Leggett finally had an appropriate audience, who hung on his every hateful word, no matter how ridiculous. For the next few weeks the Commandant and his idiot teenage storm troopers could be seen marching around the neighborhood, spouting racial epithets, and promising the elimination of the Nigger and the Jew, not only from American society, but from existence on earth.
I was sitting in a booth with my friend Jimmy, sipping a coke at Sutton Hall when a few of Leggett’s teenage goons approached us. Jimmy’s family had moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn a few years earlier, and lived in a big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the community. His father was a famous photographer who took pictures of movie stars, and had emigrated from Austria before the Nazis took over in the Thirties. No one in the Gardens except me knew very much about his family, and I knew purely by accident. A year earlier I had learned his secret, and never said a word about it, even to him.
Jimmy spent as much time at my house as I did at his, and became well liked by both my parents. He was a funny, smart, engaging kid, with a total lack of pretension of any kind. He was smarter than I was, but I was more self-assured, so it was a workable trade-off. Beyond the chemistry, I’m not exactly sure what attracts one person to another, but Jimmy was more fun to be around than anyone I knew, and we spent endless hours engaged in the curiosity, exploration, and mischief that was the stuff of kids. On a Saturday afternoon, we were leaving my house for a bike adventure when we saw Irving Appleman, an old friend of my father’s, who had made the same journey as my dad, from the outer boroughs to the garment center, and lived across Queens Boulevard, in the Jewish section of Forest Hills, near the High School. He and my dad were sitting in the dining room having coffee and talking politics. Mr. Apppleman was a friendly, jovial man, who I had known all my life, and I was proud to show off my friend Jimmy to my father’s old pal. “Where you from Jimmy?”, asked Mr. Appleman. “Brooklyn. We moved here about a year ago.” “Yeah? Me Too. I like it better here though. You boys go have some fun.”
A few hours later I returned home by myself, and was waylaid by my father and Mr. Appleman, who seemed still engaged in the same conversation about Stevenson’s chances against Eisenhower in the November election, but had moved their discussion to the living room. My father asked me to join them, a request so unusual that I knew something was up. “Your friend seems like a nice boy”, said Mr. Appleman. “What’s his family like?” “Oh, his dad’s a famous photographer. Takes pictures of movie stars. They live in a big house on Greenway South, and go to the Congregational Church. I went to a service there with him. Everybody was really friendly. They just sang a few songs, and the Pastor spoke about the importance of voting. Really different than Catholics.”
“You know Shaun”, said Mr. Appleman, “I knew his family in Brooklyn. I knew his father pretty well. A talented man. A brilliant man. Did you know that your friend’s family was Jewish?”
“Oh no, Mr. Appleman, they’re Prostestants. I went to church with him.”
“You know son, a lot of Jews came to America before the war. They were scared stiff, believe me. Back in the Thirties Jews were rounded up in Europe and arrested, just for being Jews. Did you know that?” I shrugged it off. “Well, it’s true. They were arrested, and some of them were sent to camps, and some of them were murdered. Millions of people, murdered. So a lot of them escaped and came to America, but they didn’t know what to expect when they got here, so some of them changed their names to make them sound more American, and some of them even pretended they were Catholics or Protestants. They were scared that if people found out they were Jews that they would be sent to camps. They didn’t know that couldn’t happen here. These were frightened people, trying to protect their families. Would you like to know about Jimmy’s dad?”
So Irving Appleman began the story of my friend’s father’s great odyssey; from Vienna, to Brooklyn, to the Forest Hills Gardens. In Vienna, back in the early thirties, Jimmy’s dad had made a name for himself as an up-and-coming photographer. He was a talented young man whose portraits were in demand. He wasn’t rich, but his career seemed promising, and life was good. By 1936 the mood in Vienna was changing. In Neighboring Germany Hitler had been made Chancellor, and Crystal Nacht was just around the corner. Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Vienna, breaking the windows of Jewish shops, and beating up the owners. The Nazis had gotten their fingers into the Austrian government, and Jews began disappearing in the night. As time went on the great fear among Austrian Jewry was their country being annexed by Germany. Should that happen not a Jew in Austria was safe from murder. Jimmy’s dad had lost friends and family to the camps, and was determined to get out of Austria while he still could. He had enough money saved to make the appropriate bribes, and in the Summer of 1938 he found himself safe at last, living in Brooklyn, and with a promising career as, “that talented young European photographer”.
He had added an extra “n” to his name to make it seem more Germanic than Jewish, and filled in “Lutheran” as his religion on the immigration form. His safety, and the safety of the family he planned to have, was more important than his Jewishness. He was determined that the horrors of Nazi Europe would never touch him again. When it came time to marry he chose the most goyishe looking woman he could find, an ivory skinned redhead, who belonged on the cover of a waspy magazine. During the War he managed to secure a position for himself as a middle-man merchant between the Army Signal Corps and the manufacturers of photographic chemicals. He made only a few cents on a gallon traded, but the volume was enormous, and this was how he made his fortune. By the early Fifties he was a rich man. He had become quite famous as a theatrical photographer, with an enormous studio on Times Square. He had a gorgeous wife, and three boys, and it was time to make the move from Brooklyn, but he had one last piece of slight-of-hand left to do in the charade he had created. One last brick to add to the wall so that no one would ever suspect his Jewish past. He would move his family to the most anti-semitic neighborhood he could find, and become a pillar of the community. He would not necessarily become an open Jew-hater, but he certainly wouldn’t let his children marry one. So he bought the big Tudor house on Greenway South, one of the nicest streets in the Forest Hills Gardens, joined the local Congregational Parish, and settled in to life in Fortress Goyim. He was finally safe. His family was finally safe. Safe from anti-Semitism. Safe from danger. Safe from hate. Right here in the nurturing little community that existed under the threat of the race lien, which prevented him from selling his house to a Jew.
No one said anything for a few minutes, before Irving Appleman added, “You know, he meant well. He was frightened. He wanted to protect his family from what he went through in Austria. But he did a bad thing. Your friend Jimmy is growing up in a Jew hating neighborhood. In order to make friends, to be accepted, he will start calling Jews kikes, and hebes, and Jew-boys, and how long will it be before he discovers that he himself is a kike, a hebe, a Jew-boy. That is, if he doesn’t already know, which is probably the case. Jimmy’s a smart boy. He has uncles in Brooklyn who go to Temple and observe the Holy Days. You think he doesn’t notice? He knows, believe me. And one day, probably soon this is all going to come to a terrible crisis, when he just can’t pretend anymore, and when that happens he’s going to need a friend. He’s going to need a friend just like you, Shaun. Are you going to be his friend?”
Leggett’s teenage goons were hovering over the table at Sutton Hall where Jimmy and I were sipping our cokes.
“Hey”(to Jimmy) I hear you’re gonna be a fighter pilot”
“Yeah, I guess”
“You Guess? You gonna be a fighter pilot, or what?”
“Your plane gonna have machine guns?”
“All fighter planes have machine guns”
“Your plane gonna have bombs?”
“What do you think?”
“You gonna bomb Jew-boys?”
At this point I interrupted. “Look, we’ve got to head home. Lot’s of homework”.
“You shut up. I want any shit out of you I’ll squeeze your head. Hey, I asked you a question. You gonna fire-bomb hymie-town or what. You gonna burn those kike mother fuckers out? You gonna turn those hebes into charcoal or what? Hey, you’re starting to piss me off. I want an answer you little faggot. Do you hear me? Are you gonna kill Jews?” He was menacing now and Jimmy was frightened. “Answer me.”
“Yes” (almost a whisper)
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes” (slightly louder)
“Speak like a man, you little homo.”
Jimmy looked up and screamed at him, “Yes. Yes. I’m going out and killing as many Jews as I can get my hands on. Does that make you happy?”
“Hey. That’s all I wanted to hear. Good boy.” And they turned and left.
Jimmy had tears in his eyes and his whole body was shaking. He put a quarter on the table and ran out. It was here. The moment Irving Appleman had predicted a year ago. Jimmy had taken all he was going to take. His father’s charade had caught up with him. He just couldn’t pretend anymore. I phoned him an hour later, but his mother said that he wasn’t feeling well, and hung up.
The greatest scandal the Gardens had ever seen, even greater than Ralph Bunche Jr’s denial of admission to the West Side Tennis Club, hit the papers the next morning. George Leggett, along with five of his loser-moron storm troopers had been arrested and remained in jail. They were charged with illegal weapons possession, attempted bank robbery, sedition, and the attempted overthrow of the government of the United States. Holy Moly, and right in my own neighborhood. The guy we thought wanted to play games with us had actually intended on committing violent crimes in order to finance his very real overthrow of America, and he had talked five of the loser-morons from the Sutton Hall Pharmacy into going along for the ride. He had promised them that they would take the proceeds from robbing several banks, and buy land upstate New York for a training camp, as well as weapons to train with. Nigger-splattering, Jew-killing weapons. And now they were all in jail. Bill Schutz, Arnie Dietrich, kids I knew, and they were in jail, their names and photographs all over the newspapers. Reporters and photographers scoured the neighborhood, asking about Leggett’s conspiracy, hoping to find some dirt, and everybody had something to say; Lou the florist, Bill at the Sutton Hall soda fountain, Sal at the Pizza Prince, all spilling their guts to the reporters, hoping to get their names in the newspapers.
George Leggett, who had promised fighter planes to ten-year-olds, had actually meant it all along. He didn’t just want to play war with little kids, which is what we all thought. He wanted to declare war on America, and have our parents pay for it. And poor Jimmy, who had reached the limit of his make believe, playing out the farce created by his father’s fears, and had told morons that he intended on turning Jews into charcoal, was sitting at home in his room, not quite knowing how to maintain his sanity. It was time to have the conversation with my friend that I should have had a year ago. There had been a silent understanding between us. I’m certain that he had guessed that I knew his family’s past, but we never discussed it. He had recognized Irving Appleman that afternoon, a year ago, and surely knew that it was only a matter of time before I knew everything. It was time to tell him. To tell him that I’ve known all along. To tell him that I didn’t care that he was Jewish. To tell him that he meant more to me than anyone did. To tell him that he was my best friend, no matter what. To tell him that the truth behind his family’s great charade, born of his father’s paranoia, was a secret not worth keeping.
After a few weeks had passed, and the press coverage caused by George Leggett’s attempted overthrow of America began to fade, life in the Forest Hills Gardens seemed to return to normal. Lou at the florist shop was working overtime, pinning carnations on the lapels of the white dinner jackets worn by teenage boys, whose parents had rented them earlier in the day just for tonight’s festivities. All over the community, the formally attired young men of the Gardens, carrying little white boxes, each containing an orchid corsage, were knocking on the doors of the debutantes who were to be presented that evening at the first-ever Forest Hills Cotillion. Proud fathers, escorting their carefully gowned and coifed daughters, stood ready to present their little girls to local society. From the open windows of the ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, the syrupy sound of the Lester Lanin Orchestra drifted across the little community, fading as it floated over the cherry blossoms in Station Square, until finally dissolving into the hubbub of street traffic at the Gardens’ edge. Around the Ballroom, nervous boys, mingling in twos and threes, could be seen practicing dance steps, before working up the courage to join the debutantes out on the floor. At the bar, the parents toasted their good fortune, to live in such a place. A place where everyone knew their neighbors, and could walk in safety amongst trees and gardens, greeting friends and breathing the flower-scented air, without fear of bumping into obvious undesirables – well, almost. And even though they no longer controlled the community’s demographics, on this night, here in the Ballroom at the Forest Hills Inn, as their darling debutantes danced the night away, there was not a single face of questionable heritage to be seen. Their wagons remained circled, at least for now.
Just across the Hamlet’s border, well beyond the sound of the Cotillion’s orchestra, those of the teenage loser-morons who were not presently under interrogation by the FBI, maintained their usual position, leaning against parked cars outside the Sutton Hall Pharmacy, smoking Lucky Strikes, and attempting to appear as menacing as possible. There was the usual pushing and shoving, threatening passers-by, and idiotic, hateful banter, until they became united by somebody’s cry of, “Hey, let’s go beat up some Jews.”
© Shaun Costello 2014