Nov. 19th, 2013

rickps: (Cafe Rick - 11/08)
I grew up in a wealthy town on the north shore of Long Island.  Great Neck is located a comfortable 30 minute train ride from downtown New York City.  It was so named because it was the larger of two peninsulas jutting into Long Island Sound (no surprise, the smaller peninsula is aptly named Little Neck).  It was, and is, classic suburbia - with a twist.  The bagel in the borscht so to speak was that Great Neck in my childhood was some 85% Jewish.  And then there was the money.  Oh, there was lots and lots of money.  Cars lining most streets looked like they’d just rolled off showroom floors.  Kings Point, the crown on Great Neck’s northern tip, was at the time one of the five wealthiest communities in the US.  Every home in the Point was a mansion artfully positioned on luxuriant manicured grounds with prime properties having water views.  For the most part, my childhood friends had want for nothing.  If they wished it, more often than not, they got it.  It seemed odd to me, as the son of a mixed religion, middle class family that drove around in a rusting 10 year old Ford with the passenger’s door strapped shut, that I’d been plunked down in this odd wonderland.  I learned a valuable lesson from my peers – money did not buy happiness (but it often made suffering rather wonderful).  Great Neck’s schools were among the best around which is why we’d moved into town.  My mother would accept nothing less.  One never argued with my mother.  Never.

They weren’t very creative when it came to naming things in Great Neck.  There were two high schools… Great Neck North and Great Neck South.  I went to South which had been constructed on land given to the town by the (drum roll) wealthy Phipps family.  The estate manor house was used as the school’s administration building while conjoined junior and senior high schools snaked over the grassy slopes.  From the outside, the schools had an idyllic appearance.  Buses lined long loading areas as the Phipps family estate was several miles from town.  Gleaming cars shown in the parking lot.  If one looked closer you’d realize that the gleaming cars were all student owned (Junior did NOT drive to school in last year’s Corvette!  What would the Schwartz’s down the block think!!) while the teacher’s vehicles in the back of the school were much more modest.  The school’s buildings themselves were indeed architecturally grand, except that they’d forgotten about ventilation.  On warm fall and spring days it was not uncommon for classroom temperatures to top 90 degrees and the occasional student passing out from heat exhaustion was not unknown.

Still, going to school was hardly a chore for me.  Comparatively speaking, the teachers were paid well, the kids knew they were there to learn, and parents were liberal Democrats who embraced the power of education.  The grimy side of school life seemed to have been left behind at the bus stop.  Looking back, it all seemed normal then.  From today’s perspective, it was a trip through the looking glass.

In 10th grade, my last class was Geometry with Mr. Sokol.  Mr. Sokol was one of those gruff, slow talking old teachers that seemed to roam school hallways like dinosaurs in those days.  He knew his craft, he got a kick out of passing his knowledge onto his students, and he made us work for it.  But he knew how to make us love it too.  Mr. Sokol was retiring that year and seemed determined to go out on a high note.  I’ve always had a knack for things mathematic and was fortunate that year to be in a class where the majority of the kids were like minded.  Fast forward to the end of that school year when Mr. Sokol shared the results of the annual Regents exam.  Nearly the entire class (myself included) received a 100% grade.  Mr. Sokol was near tears as he announced our grades, we were too.  We did it for him.

On a chilly November Friday afternoon, as Mr. Sokol was churning away with his theorems the school’s PA system crackled to life… Our president was dead.  Killed by a bullet as he waved to the citizens of Dallas.  Our king, his wife at his side, was no more.  I recall the silence.  I remember Mr. Sokol’s face, blank, staring out the window.  The school day ended and most of us boarded the buses for the ride back home.  It was a long, long ride that Friday.  Some were in tears, no laughter, no happiness, only silence.  We lived a page of history that day.

It’s been 50 years since that November 22nd.  Looking back, I think the US left its teen years on that November day.  I’m amazed at how vivid the memories are after all this time.


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