Don’t Drop the Cards!

You all have your own little compact laptop computers, which you use to find things on the Internet, write documents, keep in touch with your friends, edit pictures, or maybe keep track of your personal finances. You have no idea how differently it was back in the day. I realize that you will read this and probably think it’s kind of boring—not quite as whimsical as some of my other posts. But I am trying to give you a window into how it was in my day—when I walked many miles to and from school each day.

As you recall hearing many times, I worked as a computer programmer, which was a skill I learned in college on Grandpa’s recommendation. There were several computer languages which I learned—FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, PL/1. I used three of them in my four programming jobs.

The process was extremely tedious but improved greatly through the years. Both in college and at my first job as an intern at Grandpa’s company, Allied Chemical, the process of writing computer programs was very un-green.

First we wrote our code on paper, and then we had to type the code onto special cards using a typewriter-like machine—one line of code per card. Depending on the intricacies of the program, there could be several hundred or thousand cards per program.


The cards were numbered, so that in the event of a klutz episode and you tripped with your cards in one hand and coffee in another, you could put your program back into the correct order. Then you stuck them in a box which was about the size of a shoebox or you bound them together with a rubber band and hoped it didn’t break and scatter them all over the office.

These cards together comprised a single program called a “job”. They were fed into a machine called a card reader, and then you waited for a printout of your program (sometimes many hours or even a day later), which you now checked for errors..

There were many rules for writing these programs, and if you did not follow them precisely, error messages informing you of a missing comma or missing word would greet you. Then you would hit your head against a wall, correct the mistakes—called debugging—and repeat the process. It was not fun.

After graduation the technology improved so that we could bypass the cards and type the instructions directly into the computer. That was a huge improvement.

When I went to IBM, which is when we moved to New York, I got a job working in a group that basically wrote programs to generate reports. This can now be done with Excel and Word, which would have been the end of my job.

What I remember vividly about my later days at IBM was when one of the young programmers whose office was near mine announced he was getting his own personal computer. I could not wrap my mind about such a purchase. Why, I thought, would anyone want a computer in their own home? What a ridiculous waste of money, and what could he possibly do with it at home? Was I short sighted!

The American Dream- Part II

I think that for many people, another part of the American Dream is owning a home. For Grandma and Grandpa, they were married not quite five years before they built that house adjacent to my grandparents. Dad and I were both impatient and lucky in our hunt for our first home.

Sometime during our first year of marriage, we began our search. We didn’t have much in savings, so there were few homes in our price range. We found property in Boonton Township, but it couldn’t pass a perc test, which was a test required to determine if the land had the proper drainage for a septic tank.  We looked at a house which was near a home that blew up in a propane gas explosion, which was probably when I started getting nervous about gas cooking. It was fortuitous that we found nothing, because Dad got a new job out of the area.

He did the commute for a while with a few coworkers, but that soon became tiring. We then embarked on more intense house hunting, first in Bergen County (house prices to expensive), then Rockland County, New York (taxes too high), and then finally moved our search across the Hudson River to Westchester and Putnam County, New York where we found the deal of a mortgage at the low, low rate of 10 ½ % !  At that time, interest rates were typically around 18%, but we found a new housing developing offering this extraordinarily low rate. Our parents were quite adamant that we take no more than a $65,000 mortgage, fearful that we would be unable to make the mortgage and property tax payments. So that dictated which home, of the three models offered, we could afford to buy.

That was such an exciting time for us.  We put all our savings down as a deposit, and then spent the next eight months while the house was being built trying to save up what we had promised to pay on completion of the house.  What were we thinking?  We ate lots of macaroni and cheese and hotdogs, and did not go out at all. We took credits on everything from paint, to shutters, to the floor coverings.  We even instructed the builder not to finish the family room, reasoning that we could do it cheaper ourselves, and we did, purchasing unfinished paneling that we stained ourselves in the basement. Our only entertainment each weekend was the trip to check out the progress of the house followed by a visit to Friendly’s. It was the only time we ever maxed out all of our credit cards.

Grandpa spent a week helping us paint before the carpeting and tile were installed. We used paint cans as our chairs that week, and slept on mattresses that we brought with us. That was my first real camping experience.

When we moved into the house, we were so excited.  We couldn’t believe that a home so big and so beautiful was ours! Dad and I saw the same thrill of homeownership with Kelly and Mark, and look forward to someday watching the rest of you living that American Dream. It may seem impossible, but I know that eventually, you all will be exchanging stories of your first homes. Then you will have it all, a home, and the most important part of The American Dream I spoke of previously: “a good life, with plenty of laughs and good memories.”

House Yorktown-2

Finishing Family Room- Grandpa, Dad, Uncle Paul
Finishing Family Room- Grandpa, Dad, Uncle Paul
First House- Mom, Dad, Grandpa
           First House- Mom, Dad, Grandpa

In the Beginning

My hope is that these stories I have been writing during the past six months are either taking you down memory lane or are introducing you to a few stories about the family which are new to all of you. As we approach the thirty-ninth anniversary my first date with Dad, I have been reflecting about my time together with him before we got married. Hopefully, there will be new material in my musings.

I never thought Dad would call me when he asked for my phone number.  I was surprised when he did and said yes despite being told by the girls at work that he was not my type.  They were wrong!

It was a cold January evening. The temperature did not reach thirty degrees that day and there was ice on the ground. Dad showed up in his flashy black corvette, which was probably more impressive to my brothers than to me. Driving to the theater in that car was scary. Being so low to the ground made the speed feel greater. I have since decided that corvettes look like frogs.

Afterwards, he invited me to his place, not to see his sketches, but to play backgammon and try out his new coffee pot. He was so enthusiastic that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was not a coffee drinker. I don’t know why I went, but he seemed harmless and nice—and he was.

Valentine’s Day was awkward since it was only three weeks after our first date, so I made him a cheesecake.  Dad cooked me a steak dinner, which was when I first learned that normal people got their own steaks, rather than a shared sliver of one family steak.

We didn’t want anyone at work to know we were dating, so at lunchtime, we would leave separately and then meet—so clandestine.

I always wondered what the neighbors thought of him since he would only show up on weekends, and each time, it would be in a different car.  Mysterious. Every week he would bring me a souvenir from the Pilgrim Glass factory which was near the plant where he was working at the time. Did you ever notice them? I have at least three—a cat, deer, and snail.

Dad had a roommate—Don. Don lived in the lower level of their Knoll Garden apartment. We set Don up on a date with my friend Mitzie and it did not go well. They ended up getting into a disagreement on their first (probably last) date.  (It was quite the rumble with lots of yelling!) Don was an argumentative guy, so the disastrous date should not have been a surprise. I believe Dad got into an altercation with him one time that got physical.  Dad punched him. I don’t know what led to the dispute, but I am certain Don deserved it.

Fairly early in the relationship, Dad invited me to spend the weekend at his parents’ house in Yonkers. I thought it was going to be like Jenny Cavalleri visiting Oliver Barrett’s family in the movie Love Story.  (Oliver had a rich family, while Jenny did not.) But alas, their house was not a mansion like in the movies, but a normal house like mine. That was when Grandma Rita broke out the tongue to eat, and Dad said there were no other choices as I mistakenly recalled in Tongue For Lunch- Oy Vey!

I was not comfortable with his friends and didn’t even know if I liked him. I wanted to break up with Dad, but somehow, one of my cousins convinced me to “let him spend money on you and see what happens.” There are at least five people who owe their lives to that decision!

Young Gene and Karen


The Waiting Game

Every year, New Year’s Eve comes faster. I don’t like that the number of years keeps ticking higher, but I enjoy the excitement of wondering what the new year will bring. In our family, 2016 will bring a little girl. I was wrong when I asked Will History Repeat Itself, because Kelly did not go into labor after having a big Italian dinner with us like I did the night before she was born. We will not be welcoming a 2015 baby.

Each night when I go to sleep, I wonder if this will be the one when the telephone will ring at 2 a.m., calling us to babysit because “it’s time.” I look at Kelly and remember the exhaustion I felt before each of you was born and know she is now wondering what the future will bring. I thought, each time, what did I get myself into and could I do it? Somehow it just all works out.

Will Bryce excitedly hold his new sister like Jamie did with Casey, telling us all that “she is mine?” Or will he cry and act out in anger like Kelly did when Jamie destroyed her solo life with us? Will he encourage his baby sister to dive head first from our bed, or will she teach him to sit quietly and play with her toys? Or will it be something in the middle? What will the dynamics be like between these two new siblings, because this family knows only of the interactions between either two boys or three girls? All I know is that we are backstage just waiting for the signal for the show to begin.3 Little Girls

First Christmas in First Home

In October of 1980 we moved across and up the Hudson River to our home in New York. That was now our third Christmas as a married couple, and possibly our last year with a live Christmas tree. There was a small garden center not far from our house in Yorktown Heights, which is where I dragged Dad off to get our tree. I believe that by now he was into the holiday spirit and better skilled at maneuvering the tree into the stand. This was probably because he knew by then to not only look at the shape of the tree but also to consider the size of the trunk as well.

The afternoon when we went to purchase the tree was cold—typical of Decembers in New York at that time. As we were strolling through the rows of trees and listening to Christmas carols blaring from a speaker, I remember thinking how perfect it all felt. But it was not perfect until, like in the movies, it began to snow. Christmas trees, music and snow. It was great.

Since we had been in our house just over two months, we had not met many of our neighbors, so when the couple in the house next to ours invited us over for drinks, we enthusiastically accepted. We were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house the next day and had not begun the Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres tradition yet. We were flexible. We planned to have a nice roast pork dinner after our cocktails at the neighbors’ house, which we thought would be fine in the oven for the short time we would be visiting them.

Little did we know that our new friends were very heavy-handed when pouring the drinks. We were both drinking screw drivers, and apparently when they would freshen up our glasses, they only added the vodka, not the juice.

That was the most drunk I ever got, complete with the bed spins. Our arrival home was greeted by the aroma of pork cooking in the oven, which is not a welcoming smell when you are three sheets to the wind. I am not certain if we even ate much that night since we both felt so awful.

We learned later that those neighbors were nicknamed “the stabbers” by the other neighbors after an incident when they got into an argument, she stabbed him, and the police somehow arrested her! But that is secondary to my story.

The next morning was a very cold, snowy, and windy Christmas Day. Naturally, it was a very scary drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge when you are hungover, and Dad had to hold onto the wheel quite tightly in order to maintain his lane on the snow-covered roadway.

Of course you know we made it safely to Boonton and enjoyed the holiday there and dessert with the cousins. Aunt Ar and Uncle Paul had gotten married that year, so we spent the night at their apartment. That cold night was when Dad ran out of gas (my opinion) or was it that the gas tank froze (Dad’s opinion). I have done some research and read that it is possible for gas to freeze if the temperature is low enough (it was -8 degrees) and the tank is at ¼ tank or less. So if Dad is correct, then can we now pinpoint 1980 as the year he instituted the policy of never letting the tank in the car get too low?



First Christmases

Growing up, Dad never celebrated Christmas. I think the closest his family had to anything Christmas-like was a small decorated tree in his father’s television repair shop in the Bronx which his dad called a Hanukkah bush. They usually got in the family truckster and drove to Miami to visit his grandparents during their Christmas vacation. So marrying into a family that embraced the holiday was a fun proposition for him.

I always began preparing for the holidays weeks in advance by baking cookies, which I then froze so they would not be stale by Christmas. I baked dozens upon dozens, usually at home, but a few times I went to my friend Mitzie’s house. Mitzie, her mom, our friend Lisa, and I would spend an afternoon mixing, baking, sampling, and laughing, and then bring home an assortment to share with our families. Among our favorites were spritz, peanut butter kisses, strawberry jam thumbprints, M&M’s, chocolate chips, and one I named “Ma Charlton’s Apricot filled” after Mitzie’s mother.

Dad spent his first Christmas Eve at our house, sleeping in the basement. In those days, we went to midnight mass together, which was actually held at midnight. In later years, midnight mass got moved back a few hours to around 10:00, but I seem to recall that it was still referred to as “midnight mass” for a few years. Go figure!

Christmas morning Dad was more anxious than my younger siblings to open his gifts, and the youngest was still a kid that year. (Uncle Dave was only twelve) I made sure he got lots of fun presents for his first Christmas. His pile of presents consisted of games like Monopoly, Clue, and Stratego. The next day, we went out and hit up the after Christmas sales for decorations for next year, when we would have our own place.

So Christmas of 1978 we were married and settled in our first home. For our first few Christmases, I insisted on getting a real tree. I remember Dad had difficulty getting the tree in the stand, since this was never a skill he learned from his own father. It was a particularly cold day that first Christmas when we purchased our first tree, and Dad’s frustration level was beginning to hit a breaking point. He finally turned to me and said, “What is a nice Jewish boy from New York doing in a parking lot in New Jersey trying to put a Christmas tree in a stand?” He had a point, but it had to be done.

The rest of the holiday went off without a hitch. Those were the days of vinyl albums, and, well, you all know how I love Barry Manilow. I am confident there was at least one Manilow album under our tree that year. Dad prided himself with his gift wrapping abilities, particularly his skill in not wasting a single scrap. He would wrap all his presents and leave the albums until the end. Then he would create a “wrapping paper quilt” consisting of all the pieces that I would have thrown away. He was so clever!

The next day we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and then to my cousin Nancy’s for cookies and dessert. The Christmas secession had not yet occurred.

Our First Christmas - 1978
Our First Christmas – 1978
First Christmas (?) at Grandma and Grandpa's House
First Christmas (?) at Grandma and Grandpa’s House


Our First Tree- Christmas 1978

    Our First Tree- Christmas 1978

    Movin’ and Groovin’

    I cannot dance. Clearly the family dance gene skipped over me. It went to Carly.

    Grandma and Grandpa loved to dance, which you should all know was a common bond between them when they first dated and continued as long as I can remember.

    Both Grandma and Aunt Marian chose dance lessons over music when they were younger, and they were taught by their cousin Gertrude and her father, their Uncle Jim Downey. Their great uncle, Jack Blue, was the most famous member of their family other than their Irish-inventor cousin Louis Brennan.

    Uncle Jack was a dance instructor who taught many famous actors and actresses how to dance back in the twenties through the forties and was the dance master/director for a famous Broadway singer/composer/dancer/playwright named George M. Cohan. (Maybe you know some of his songs: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” or maybe you are all too young.) Uncle Jack, according to the family stories, was in Ripley’s Believe It or Not because of his talent as an instructor despite never taking a lesson himself.

    Grandpa showed me a few of his moves, but when it came to “fast dances,” I was clueless until the “big date.” It was during college, and my friend Karen and I met some guys somewhere who took the two of us out on a date. The date was uneventful and clearly not very memorable. All that I remember was that the names of our dates were Ken and Irv, and we went to a bar not far from  campus.

    While Karen and I never saw Ken and Irv again, that night in the bar is memorable to me because that was when I realized no talent or instruction was needed to get up and dance to a song with a fast beat. We were sitting in the bar when a song began to play. Ken, or was it Irv, grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor. I had no choice but to dance because I would have looked ridiculous if I just stood there. So that was the day when I learned my dance moves, and that is why that night in a bar in New Brunswick is forever etched in my memory.

    First Date- Hup Two Three Four

    I opened my memory bank to search for another first—my first date. As I mentioned to all of you before, I was very shy during most of my early years. As a result, I did not go on a single date during high school. Choosing to attend an all-girl college did nothing to improve that situation, although my classes were sprinkled with a few boys from some of the other campuses.

    I went to Douglass College, which was one of several colleges of Rutgers University. We were able to take courses at the other colleges, and students on the other New Brunswick campuses took classes on our campus as well. Still, most of my classes were primarily attended by females.

    My roommate for most of the first year was from Hawaii. Her Army father wanted her to attend an East Coast school, which is how she ended up at Douglass.  Stephanie was dating a West Point cadet, so one weekend, she arranged to bring several of her friends on one of her trips to visit her boyfriend. Each one of us was “fixed-up” with a date.

    We took a train from New Brunswick to West Point. I don’t recall much of the ride, but I am guessing we had to ride into New York City and transfer to a second train at Penn Station. Looking at the schedule today, it appears that the trip took a total of three hours. By car we could have gotten there in half that time, but none of us had a car back then.

    We stayed at the Thayer Hotel, which is located on the West Point Campus. I believe there were four of us who traveled together and shared a room in the hotel.

    My memories have faded, but I recall several snippets of that weekend. I particularly remember the name of my date, because it was such a pretty name—Paul Melody.

    We ate in a huge dining hall with the uniformed cadets. The whole experience was quite unique, and at the time, kind of bizarre. The plebes, which were what the freshmen were called, had to sit at attention while eating. I found a description online which matches my fuzzy recollections.

    The plebes had to get the food from their plates to their mouths in three rigid movements. They didn’t just scoop it off their plates and shovel it into their mouths like we all do. Imagine a robot eating dinner. That is what it looked like to watch those men at the other tables eating. They could not look around the room. They had to stare at their plates and could not speak. When they had visitors like us, the rules were relaxed, but I observed this mechanical behavior at the other tables.

    I remember walking around the campus with my date. West Point is located high above the Hudson River, so it is very scenic, particular in the fall, which is when I think we visited. I know he was very well-mannered, but I don’t think we had much to talk about. There was no further contact after that, although I seem to recall that one of the other girls did hit it off with her date and return for another adventure or two with Stephanie.

    I have not spoken to her since I left Douglass, but I recently looked her up and see that she is now on Facebook. I think she married her West Point cadet. I think it’s time for me to reach out and see if we can reconnect.

    Sea Legs

    I was surprised to learn that my first sea excursion was not the cruise around the Hawaiian Islands with Dad shortly after we were married. Instead, it was on a ferry to a small island off the coast of Rhode Island one month after my second birthday. I got seasick both coming and going to Block Island. Fortunately, only Kelly has been plagued with that curse.

    From what Grandma has told me, the accommodations were anything but luxurious, but at the incredibly cute age of two, I didn’t care and sadly, I have no memory of the trip. We went with friends of Grandpa, and the biggest excitement during the entire week was created when a man who did the NBC 11:00 nightly news appeared on our side of the island. One of the friends traveling with us was so excited that she had him autograph her cigarette. His name was John K.M. McCaffrey.

    It was not a good time to vacation on the island, since we were all awoken several times by Coast Guard lights looking for survivors of three plane crashes and one drowning.

    It was a summer of much rain in New England. Grandma and Grandpa dodged a bullet by traveling then, because just three weeks earlier, the island was hit by the first hurricane of the season. Still, there was enough rain to cause one problem for us as we were leaving the island. According to my autobiography, written when I was twelve, “It had rained the night before and the small boat kept filling up. My mother had to bail with a tin can while holding me. We just reached the ship on time. They lifted us up on the gangplank and we sailed into the sunset.”

    Grandma was twenty-eight on that vacation; Grandpa thirty-eight. They were so young. Can you just imagine that scene?

    Me, with Grandpa- July 1957 on Ferry to Block Island, RI
    Me, with Grandpa- July 1957 on ferry to Block Island, RI

    You Still Remember That?

    While January 1st is the official start of the New Year, for me, the beginning of the school year always seemed a more appropriate date. Growing up, the new television season began in September for all shows, and Dad said that the new model cars were always unveiled at that time. Now that we have a teacher in the family, the feeling continues. Hearing the updates as Jamie sets up her classroom for the start of school this week got me thinking about some of the methods I was taught to learn to spell particular words or remember certain facts. I know all of you can probably add to my list.

    Uncle Rich’s family lived in Illinois for a while. That is when I learned to spell Chicago. “Chicken in the car and the car won’t go. That’s how you spell Chicago.” I know it’s corny, but when I think of the windy city, that is what I hear in my head.

    Along the same weird line, how do I spell the town of Passaic? “Piece of pie and a piece of cake that’s how you spell Passaic.” I can’t figure that one out one bit. It makes no sense. I can almost hear you snickering. Perhaps my cousin Susan, who lived in Passaic, can help me with that, but it’s stuck in my brain, too.

    Anyone who watched The Mickey Mouse Club learned how to spell encyclopedia from Jiminy Cricket. When the teacher would say “encyclopedia,” you could see every head bobbing in unison as the melody was quietly sung by each student.  At least all of you used an encyclopedia when you were younger, but it has become a dinosaur. For Bryce, and any future siblings and cousins, that will be a foreign word. “Mom, what is an encyclopedia?” Show all of them this video:

    One of my favorite teachers was Mr. Egge–my English teacher in seventh and eighth grade. He bore a lesson into my head as well.  Ask your aunts no recite their helping verbs. It goes like this:

    Has, have, had,

    Do, does, did.

    Be, am, is, are, was, were, been.

    Can, could, shall, should, will, would,

    May, might, must.

    In second grade, you learned to recite the 50 states from Mrs. O’John, who taught you to remember every state using the song, “Fifty Nifty United States.”  (For some reason Jamie doesn’t know the song.) It was so successful that when Kelly was in college, during one class, she had to list as many states as she could remember. I don’t think her professor expected anyone to list them alphabetically.

    All three of you had Mrs. O’John, and I am probably correct in stating that she was one of your favorite teachers. Now that I an obsessive player of the alphabetical license plate game, I have included that song in my funeral playlist. (Wendy, make sure it’s played!)

    So to all of you this week I say, “Happy New Year.”