John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: February, 2023

The City Kid’s Game

Peter King: September 2021

Edited and Amended: John Delach: February 2023

Excerpts from Peter King’s piece are in italics.

Stickball was the City Kid’s Game often played on local streets especially when the closest park or playing field was too far away, or it was located in another kid’s group’s turf. We learned early not to stray from our own neighborhood and to only play with kids we knew.

If we strayed too far, we ran the risk of running into aliens who were bigger, stronger, faster and meaner than we were. Then it could easily turn into an ugly scramble where it was every kid for himself as we retreated in every direction.

But played on own turf, stickball was a blast.

The rules might vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, but, “on the street the ball was hit on a bounce and the bases were sewers, manholes or parked cars. If there was no running, agreed upon boundaries designated a single, double, triple or a home run.

The block I lived on in Ridgewood, Himrod Street between Senaca Avenue and Onderdonk Avenue, had a moderate grade. By an unknown agreement, we always hit the ball in the uphill direction from the bottom at Senaca. The block had two manholes and any ball that was hit beyond the second cover was deemed to be a Home Run.

Stickball was entirely different from today’s world of travel team baseball. There were no expensive entrance fees or gloves, helmets and custom-made bats that cost many hundreds of dollars.

The only equipment needed was a broomstick and a Spalding (‘Spaldeen’) rubber ball. Most important there were absolutely no adults. Not one parent, coach or umpire. We had to make it work on our own and had no thought of being consoled if we gave up the game winning homer or struck out with bases loaded.

I was a mediocre ball player for most of my career and had a lousy record with longer broomsticks. I couldn’t bounce the ball and still get a long stick around in time to make contact. I was decent with a short sick and I always sort them out from the collection that laid on the street.

I should note that most broomsticks were cut to the owner’s preferred size. I use the word “owner’ lightly because wherever there was a stickball bat, there was an angry housewife lamenting over the destruction of her mangled broom.

Our greatest nemesis was cops in local patrol cars. Stickball was not illegal, but we were an urban nuisance to drivers and landlords. The easiest thing for the police to end a game was to confiscate our broomsticks and we all kept one eye open to spot the patrol cars before they spotted us. If we were lucky, we would see an approaching cop car before they spotted us, shove the bats under a parked car and scatter. The game would resume after they were out of sight unless some fink would make off with the bats before the rest of us returned to the scene of our game.

I did achieve a measure of success at 13 when I grew into the long broomstick. I could finally get the stick around fast enough to make good contact with the ball. With luck, I could drive the ball past the second manhole cover and become a two cover hitter.

E-Bike Result: Bike – One, Delach – Zero

February 2023: Originally published, October 2018

The young man who worked at the bike shop in the port town of Avalon on Catalina Island began his five to seven-minute tutorial as soon as we signed the waivers holding them harmless for all liabilities including injuries we could sustain by riding electric powered bicycles (E-Bikes) during the next two hours.

He walked us through how to increase and decrease the gear ratios to help us pedal the E-Bikes up and down the numerous hills we would encounter. He explained how to work the electric motor throttle and the front and rear brakes. “Remember, these are disc-brakes, not traditional hand brakes. To use them, don’t press and hold them. If you do, the bike will stop suddenly and you may go flying over the handlebars. Squeeze them gently, on and off.”

I knew he didn’t see the weird look on my face as he explained braking. As if by magic, his words transported me back to the summer of 1957 in Cutler Ridge, Florida. My father had put me on his Vesper motor scooter and was explaining how to brake it. The old man was bit more elegant but less P.C. than this young man, “John, touch the brake like you are squeezing a girl’s breast.”

Mary Ann returned me to reality with her worried question and plea, “Do we really want to ride these things?”

“Yes, yes, of course we do. C’mon, lets do it, we’ve been looking forward to this.”

I hoped my adamant reply concealed my own doubts or any panic in my voice.

Our guide raised more red flags as he took out a map and set out his recommended route. “Head out on the coastal road that gives you about a half mile to get used to the bikes. Remember, they weigh over twenty pounds so don’t make sharp turns or brake hard. Use your electric motor judiciously and brake easy and often on the downhills.”

When he warned us about watching out for other tourists driving rented four and six-passenger golf carts, I really became nervous.

Again, came the warning, “Do we really want to ride these things?”

Thanks to male ego and my stupidity, I assured my mate to stay the course with, “C’mon, let’s do this.”

And so, we started off. Leading the way, I had only gone about fifty feet when I was forced to stop for a woman inching a golf cart out of a parking area. Seeing me she stopped. I clearly had the right-of-way and began to move forward. However, she looked beyond me to see if the road was clear and pulled out. “Son of a bitch,” I murmured to myself as I jammed on the brakes to let her pass. From the back seat, one of her companions who witnessed this near miss said as he passed by, “Sorry, she’s a rookie driver.”

I learned what I could during that first half mile but any confidence I acquired evaporated as we climbed a series of switchbacks that led us up the side of a mountain, especially those stretches where we had to navigate on the outside half of the road. I was able to climb even the steepest hills by peddling while keeping the motor at full throttle.

But I had to force all my attention on keeping a line away from the edge while not straying out of my narrow lane. By the time we reached a scenic overlook, my state of mind was such that I really didn’t observe the spectacular scenery. The many houses that clung to the hillsides should have been impressive as well as the beautiful harbor filled with boats big and small. But my preoccupation with death trumped enjoyment.    

Realizing how high we had climbed only intensified my state of near panic. A group of twenty-something young adults took a photo of Mary Ann and me and asked us how we were doing? “Okay, so far, but we hate having to stay close to the edge.”

One young man responded, “You don’t have to, this road is one way. How do you say “relief?” “One way!”

We made it the rest of the way to the highest hill and down-hill back into town. Still in the lead, I decided to take a break at a stop sign to check our location and discuss where we could go next. After I brought my bike to a stop, I turned off the battery to prevent inadvertently using the throttle and stepped off to use the kick-stand. I moved my left foot onto the ground. Holding the bike steady, I lifted my right foot to clear the relatively low bar.

My right leg failed me. The combination of a seventy-four-year old knee, a replacement hip, the weight of the bike and gravity won out and over I went. First response: check all my body parts. All good, but my left leg was pinned under the bike held fast by my right leg that remained on top.

Slowly I lifted the bike to free my left leg. It was then that Mary Ann arrived. “Oh my God, are you all right?”

“Yeah. A few bruises, nothing of concern.”

I was able to stand and right the bike. We biked for a while longer before returning them. My left knee had the kind of blood wound that seven-year-olds regularly suffer on a baseball field.

God bless Mary Ann for remaining silent about the folly of our adventure. Instead, she accompanied me to a local pharmacy to purchase Neosporin and over-size band-aids to cover my wound.

We had a pleasant dinner before boarding the ferry for the return trip to Dana Point and our car ride home to Carlsbad. Final score: E-Bike-One; Delach-Zero!

Camp Sanita’s Saga

I promised George that I would investigate the place where he spent his happiest summer vacations during the early 1950s, Sanita Hills Camp. This is what I discovered:

Mayor Fiorello took office in 1933 as a reformer dedicated to cleaning up the ruins left behind by Jimmy Walker, who had been forced from office. However, the Little Flower’s greatest challenge was to take bold steps to lessen the stranglehold the great depression had on the city. He appointed men who dared to do great things. Robert Moses was his most effective commissioner, but another, forgotten today, was William F. Carey, Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. “Carey demonstrated admirable concern for his workers known as the ‘White Wings’ for their white uniforms.”

Shortly after Carey’s appointment, he proposed to La Guardia that he purchase a Long Island estate for the exclusive use by sanitation employees. Morale was awful as the department had lower salaries than almost every other municipal operation. Carey explained to the mayor that he had a separate fund generated from revenue earned from a series of baseball games played by his department’s team against the Police Department in Yankee Stadium. The Little Flower didn’t object and encouraged Carey in his quest.

Carey purchased Oheka Castle in Huntington, Long Island. Otto Kahn, a Morris County based Jewish businessman, had bought the land in 1914 after being shutout one time too many for membership at one of the New Jersey golf clubs. He commissioned leading architects to design his mansion. Construction of the castle and the grounds including its own 18-hole golf course took five years to finish. When Kahn passed away in 1934, his estate put Oheka up for sale in a lean time when few “want to be” dukes or barons could afford such a luxury.

Enter Carey with a fist full of dollars who submitted the best offer on behalf of sanitation. The estate accepted his offer, the best they could expect. Carey deemed the new property to be: “Chateau Sanita.”

Huntington, even then, was an upscale community populated by influential families and individuals, so it didn’t take long for their quiet rage to force the castle’s estate to renege on the deal. “Sorry, old boy, but seriously, garbage men vacationing here. I mean, what’s next?”

Carey backed off. Hat in hand, he met with La Guardia for help to find a suitable tract of land in southern New York State to establish a vacation camp for his workers and their families. The mayor prevailed on both Eleanor and, her husband, Franklin, to help the city find the land he needed. With their help, “he was able to purchase land in in Duchess County, NY in the hamlet of Holmes to establish Sanita Hills Camp.

Information about the purchase or the development of facilities is not readily available so I have used what I could find and make assumptions about the rest.

“The property eventually had three camps; one for families, one for single men and a third for single women. The complex included a dining hall and recreation center. Four small lakes were expanded, cleaned up and beaches were created for swimming, sailing and other water sports.”

The problems associated with building cabins from scratch was solved by a fortuitous coincidence. At the same time that construction on the camp was beginning, the City of New York gained control of the old IRT and BMT elevated lines which they closed in preparation for demolition. Hundreds of wooden elevated cars were taken out of service. Commissioner Carey had the wheels removed from dozens of them and retro-fitted the units before hauling them upstate on flatbed trucks.

“The open-ended platforms were mounted on concrete supports, were fitted with simple wooden porches, railings and steps. Typically, this porch was shaded by a stripped awning and could be entered through a door cut into that side of the body. Referred to as “Pullmanettes,” Sanitation workers paid a nominal amount to vacation in Camp Sanita for as long as a week. Those Pullmanettes intended for family use had a center kitchen-dining area, a master bedroom and two berth children’s rooms. These interiors were trimmed with Philippine mahogany and equipped with an electric refrigerator and a tiled bathroom with a shower.

The camp had four lakes for fishing, water sports and swimming, the largest being Whaley Lake. Another, christened, Sunset Lake had separate lakeside areas for open air dancing, a theatre and communal dining and other recreational activities. A number of baseball and softball fields dotted the property as did courts and fields for other popular sports popular in those post World War II years.

Information about the why and cause  for an audit is sketchy, but apparently in 1943… “ it led to an investigation into how Sanitation was able to buy 1,100 acres of land and who authorized the requisition of city elevated train cars, not to mention the use of materials, supplies and city labor to build the resort.”

In 1943, The New York Times reported that Commissioner Carey admitted to authorizing  the project for the good of the department and the city. LaGuardia ordered the department to get rid of the camp, but this mandate was never made a priority as Sanitation employees and their families continued to make use of the property until the spring of 1956. In a ceremony conducted at the camp on May 18, 1956, then Commissioner of Sanitation, Andrew W. Mulrain, formally transferred the title of Sanita Hills to Boy Scouts of Greater New York Council.

Over time, interest in scouting diminished especially during the turbulent 1970s and the greatly reduced need for camps led to the shedding of unwanted property. Sanita was one of those casualties. Today, only past memories of past summer fun remains in those hill of Duchess County.             

Forgotten New York: Camp Sanita Hills

Late last year, I published a piece about a 1956 weekend camping trip to Camp Sanita Hills in upstate New York. What made the trip special was having my father join my scout troop as an adult adviser. (My father left my mother before I was one-year’s old.) Having my father there was very important to me as it validated his existence proving that I actually had a father.

Shortly after I published that piece, Ria called to tell me that George, her long-time friend from the East End of Long Island, had told her that he was going to head upstate to find out what had happened to the summer camp where his family vacationed during the early 1950s. He told Ria that those summers were the happiest vacations of his life. The place was owned and operated by the city’s Department of Sanitation for use by the families of their employees.”

“John,” Ria continued, “I am not certain about his details, but it seemed to be the same place you wrote about. He was quite sure his family lived in old railroad cars, but other than that, he can’t discover anything else about that place”

“Ria, that’s Camp Sanita.”

“He can’t find anybody who can confirm any details.”

“Ria, I can. Give him my number,”

George telephoned me a few days later. I told him everything I knew about the camp, but it became obvious that I knew very little. He asked why the NYC Sanitation owned the camp, why they lived in railroad cars instead of cabins and other questions.

I told him what I remembered as best I could. He asked where it was located? I told him that I had learned that it was in Holmes, NY.

 “Sorry, John, that doesn’t mean anything to me. I do remember that we made trips for groceries and treats to Pauling, NY.”

“Let me look that up on my I-Pad.” Sure enough, I discovered that Holmes is part of Pauling.

That mystery solved: George wanted to know when his family actually vacationed there. We are contemporaries, so that helped me to zero in. “That trip with my dad in 1956 was the only time I stayed in Camp Sanita.”

He asked how old I was and I replied, “Twelve.”

George now knew the basic facts about his family vacations to understand the location of the camp and the time frame for those vacations.

“John, What I do recall is that when my family vacationed there, the camp was part of the NYC Department of Sanitation. My father was in the FDNY, but my grandfather had a career with Sanitation. He booked our vacations at Sanita.”

George, shared some of his other experiences with me, but it became obvious that there was much about Sanita that I didn’t know. “George, so far, that’s all I can tell you, except for the fact that ‘Sanita’ is an abbreviation for ‘ Sanitation,’ but, leave this with me. Let me do the research and I’ll get back to you.”

I already knew that George has a place in the Virgin Islands where he escapes winter on the East end of Long Island. I’m sure the storm that struck the East Coast on December 23rd reinforced George’s desire to escape winter’s discomfort. This would give me time to complete my research, but I also needed this delay to recover from my knee surgery that was performed on January 9, 2023.

(To be continued.)