"From our great wigwam on the hill"
begins the Weequahic High School fight song. The second stanza goes:
When we come back
You're sure to see
It's been for us
This is Jewish idiom, pure and simple. And Weequahic High in 1937
was Jewish. I loved it. Every day was exciting, new things to learn,
new things to do.
The first half-year there, I was in the afternoon session- going
from noon to five o'clock. This had a number of advantages In the
evening, we would argue about algebra problems and shout Latin declensions
at each other, and then in the morning, I would do my homework.
David Lyons and I were in Latin class and for some reason the
teacher, Mr. Aaron Franzblau, took a special interest in us. He
nicknamed David, "Cupid" and me, "Weasel". My
parents were not at all happy about this, but I was quite pleased.
As the Weasel, I could do things that "Eli" could never
do. I began to help some big boys with their homework, especially
algebra and geometry, and in turn they would push me around the
halls- I slid on the back edge of my leather heels- and shout "Here
comes the Weasel!" I felt like the mastermind of a gangster
mob, just like Edward G. Robinson in the movie "The Amazing
Weequahic High was not big in sports, although we competed in
football and basketball. However, Jewish boys were not big or tall.
Our football team lost all but one of our games. (Actually, we did
have one big boy in the school- "Swede" Mason, but when
his mother said that he couldn't play football, our hopes were dashed.)
Our basketball team consisted of all short, fast guards. At a time
when there was a center toss after each goal, that meant that the
other team usually got the ball. Despite the handicap, our basketball
team played fairly well, and ended its season with a 32-31 victory
over rival South Side High.
What we did have, however, was music- and lots of it. We had swing
and jazz bands, a marching band, a bugle corps and a symphony orchestra.
I signed up for the bugle battalion and played third trumpet- which
meant that we were like the drums. We never played- or even heard-
the melody. At football games, the drum major and the baton twirlers
would march out, followed by the 48-piece bugle corps. After we
were fully on the field, we parted, making a large aisle, down which
came the 108-piece marching band. It was most impressive. The fact
that we lost the first eight games of our schedule never fazed us.
Our hated rival was Hillside High of Elizabeth, the next town. By
a miracle, the final score was 6-6- a tremendous moral victory.
It was cold and raining, but at the end of the game, we marched
up and down that muddy field, playing in pure joy.
This was the Age of the Big Bands. When the Artie Shaw and and
Benny Goodman bands came to town at the same time- playing in neighboring
movie theatres, our school practically emptied. We were there for
five shows and more. I well remember when Benny Goodman's band began
his theme song, playing behind the closed curtain and the drum began,
we all knew that sound- It was Gene Krupa, who had been in trouble
for narcotics. He was back and the place went crazy even before
the curtain rose.
Music at Weequahic High was Henry Melnick. Mr. Melnick was not
only our music teacher. He staged major musical events. At the of
one semester, he put on a musicale- consisting of all different
types of musical performances- and ending with the combined symphony
orchestra, marching band, bugle battalion and the high school chorus,
playing his masterpiece. I was impressed with every facet of this
performance, especially Mr. Melnick's musical theme. Several years
later, I heard for the first time the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's
Ninth Symphony- and shouted out- "That's Mr. Melnick's Theme!"
It was about Mr. Melnick's Music Appreciation class in my first
semester at Weequahic High that I had my only run-in with my mother
concerning my marks. For some reason, my mid-term mark was a "D".
My mother was furious. "You are the son of an outstanding pianist!
You will not get a bad mark in Music Appreciation. You will get
to work!" Under her driving and her direct participation, I
produced three papers, consisting of pictures and words one on the
instruments of the orchestra, another on famous composers, and the
third on musical history. Mr. Melnick gave me "Triple A's"
on each one, so that my final grade mark was an "A". My
mother was satisfied. I felt that she had earned the good grade.
The second half of my Freshman Year began in September, 1937.
I was now on the regular schedule and rode my bike to school. For
the first time I was taking a full lunch to school. My daily diet
consisted of Rice Crispy cereal for breakfast, two boiled ham sandwiches
on white bread for lunch, two "Mighty Fine" chocolate
puddings with two glasses of milk at 4 PM and then dinner. This
remained my daily diet for the next three years. I was convinced
that at some point Rice Crispy box tops would become valuable and
so I collected them in stacks of 25. Nothing came of that, of course.
At the beginning at 1938, my folks opened a candy store in Maplewood,
New Jersey. (I'll speak more about this in a separate chapter.)
However, it was clear that we would be moving from Newark and that
this would be my last semester at Weequahic. My new school would
be Columbia High in South Orange-Maplewood. It was a strange school
term, in that my parents were not at home when I came back from
school. My grandmother took care of the house. My school work went
well. I especially liked Geometry with its logic and became the
"star" of my class in competition with other Geometry
sections. On weekends, I would sometimes take the buses to the candy
store, so that I began to see less of my boyhood friends.
Sometime before the semester ended, I made a trip to Columbia
High School and met with a school counselor. Columbia High was on
a standard full year term basis, and I was out of sync since I began
each school year in February. I would have completed 1 1/2 years
of school by September, 1938. The counselor gave me two choices,
I could lose a half-year, entering Columbia as a sophomore, or I
could take two summer school courses at East Orange High School
and enter Columbia as a junior. I chose the latter alternative.
We moved to South Orange in June, 1938. In July, I began taking
the two summer school courses in Geometry and Latin. The courses
lasted six weeks. I rode my bike from South Orange to East Orange,
a distance of perhaps five or six miles. Summer school classes were
held as make-ups for students who failed the courses during the
regular semester. Thus I was the only student in either class who
really wanted to be there and the only one to whom the content was
completely new. The teachers were fine and I received two marks
of "B". Now I could enter Columbia High as a junior. I
was fourteen years old.
* * *
© Steven E. Schanes 2002
August 24, 2000