Saturday, March 19, 2016

Bonus Quote of the Day (Herman Wouk, on the Bronx Street Where He—and I—Lived)

“By luck, my childhood bedroom faced the sun. I grew up on Aldus Street in the Bronx, where my family lived on the top floor of a five-story walk-up in an apartment way in the back. Each morning from my bed, I’d see a beam of sunlight with motes dancing through it pass through the window. I felt good right away. The morning sun is cheering, no matter what mood you're in.”—Novelist Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny), as told to Marc Myers, “House Call—Herman Wouk: Last Guy Chosen for Stickball,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 11, 2016

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the release of the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller about seamen under stress in WWII, The Caine Mutiny. The 1951 novel would be adapted for Broadway, film and TV, and launch decades of success for author Herman Wouk (including his return to WWII, in his novels about naval attache “Pug” Henry, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance).

Wouk celebrated his 100th birthday last year, and he has demonstrated his continuing mental agility not only in the interview with Marc Myers that I’ve hyperlinked above, but also through his memoir to mark his centennial, Sailor and Fiddler. That reminiscence may have disappointed readers who would have liked to have read more about his South Bronx childhood, but Wouk has a ready explanation: he had already poured his feelings and memories about that period into his 1948 coming-of-age novel, City Boy.

I had known the general milestones associated with Wouk’s life, notably his bestselling novels, but as I read his recent recollections in interviews, I felt a stronger sense of identification with him. Like me, he graduated from Columbia University; he had worked for five years as a writer for the mordant, influential Irish-American radio comedian Fred Allen, whose life and work have long fascinated me; and, to my considerable surprise, he had lived on “the top floor of a five-story walk-up” on Aldus Street, as had my family when I was an infant.

The fact that I come from this urban setting would surely surprise even friends who have known me from five decades in a New Jersey suburb close to the Big Apple. But maybe something from those first few months of my life survives in me as a stray gene transmitted from those closest to me.

If City Boy is an indication, Aldus Street furnished him with the kind of Tom Sawyer-ish adventures that a working-class urban kid could expect. Although Wouk has lived for years in Palm Springs, Calif., it does not appear to have dimmed one iota his vivid, affectionate memories of his sunny childhood and adolescence on the sidewalks of New York in the Calvin Coolidge era.

Three decades later, when my parents began to raise their three sons there, much remained of the neighborhood culture that Wouk recalled, but forces outside their control had begun to darken residents’ outlooks on their world.  The portion of the street where my family lived was still largely Irish and Jewish, and mothers from both groups kept a sharp eye out for the kids in the apartment buildings and the street. My older brothers, as Wouk and his friends had done three decades before, played stickball in the middle of the street, and open hydrants provided the neighborhood kids with impromptu outdoor showers.

It couldn’t last. By mid-1960, when I was just shy of a year old, hair-raising encounters with criminals in our building convinced my parents to cross the Hudson to New Jersey. Thousands of other residents came to the same conclusion in the next decade, leaving the new immigrants coming into the area finding nothing like the island of lower-middle-class aspiration that had lifted the Wouks. Aldus Street became part of the “Fort Apache” district that served as shorthand for urban decay and violence in the Seventies and Eighties. Strenuous efforts toward urban revival have been made in this now Latino-dominated neighborhood, but, judging from news accounts in recent years, it will still take some time before stability returns here.

Nostalgia, joyful and lyrical, is still inextricably bound to pain and loss. That complicated feeling—in this case, for a humble but seemingly secure South Bronx street— ties together two families otherwise separated by homeland, time and sensibility: the Wouks, Jewish emigrants from Minsk, Russia (modern-day Belarus), starting out in New York in the era surrounding World War I, and the Tubridys, from Irish stock, hoping, right after World War II, for similar mobility.

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