CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF JOE MERENDINO
Throughout of my life, I have tended to form close, individual friendships rather than being a part of larger groups. I think of the people I spent time with individually after school as "pals" and the much larger group of people I knew and interacted with in school as "friends". Some of my pals were Herbert North, Noel Prinz, Charlie Favazzo, Nick Russo, Mark Hyman, Eddie Ginsburg, Paul Longo, Guy Petinga, Nick "Sonny" Rifice and many others. This is the story, beginning almost sixty years ago, of what I remember about one of my pals, Joe Merendino.
Joe and I, along with many other ACHS '58 graduates, attended Texas Avenue Elementary School beginning in 1945. All the kids lived within a few blocks of the school allowing us to walk to school. I don't recall that we had a school bus. Most of the kids came from working-class families; many of us were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. We didn't have much, yet we never thought of ourselves as poor, except for a few families that were really badly off, and their children had to wear the same drab clothes every day.
I think Joe and I attended the same kindergarten class. It was taught by Miss North, who had also been my mother's teacher there some thirty years before. But, I am sure Joe and I were in the first grade together because of something that happened that year. Our teacher, Miss Ulshafer was an elderly, upstanding lady. Because she was considered to be "strict", many of the kids didn't really like Miss Ulshafer. One day, after she had read us a picture story about the development of tadpoles into frogs, I got a brilliant idea. During recess, I pulled Joe into the cloakroom and whispered in his ear, "Miss Ulshafer is a tadpole!" Apparently, this allusion did not impress Joe too much since he went straightaway to the teacher and told her what I had said. Miss Ulshafer looked horrified and told me I would have to stay after school. I was filled with anguish, believing I had committed an unforgivable offense. Time passed much more slowly than usual for the rest of that day.
After school, Miss Ulshafer sat at her desk with a terrified six-year old standing before her. She looked perfectly miserable and began to weep. "Do you know what it is like for a woman to devote her whole life to teaching children like you and then have someone say such a horrible thing as you did today? Do you have any idea at all?" I also began to cry and could hardly speak, managing only an "I'm sorry!" I was not sure exactly what a tadpole was except that it must have been something awful. Thank God she did not tell my parents about my crass behavior. I didn't speak to Joe much for a few weeks after that.
Later, our friendship mended and we began to get together after school to talk and play, sometimes with Joe's cousin Edward "Buddy" Thomas. When we were nine years old and in fourth grade, Joe's father bought him a used bicycle. "My dad got it for eight dollars", Joe told me, "and it's really nice except it doesn't have any brakes". Joe had been cautioned that he could only ride the bike in the Texas Avenue schoolyard, which was usually vacant after school.
One afternoon, after Joe learned how to ride with his dad's help, he invited me to the schoolyard for some riding lessons. "I'll hold it while you get on and then give you a push." He explained further, "To turn left, you lean left, to turn right, you lean right. Don't pedal too hard. Got it?" With some trepidation, I mounted the contraption and Joe gave me a hard push. I soon realized that you didn't have to balance yourself very much as long as you kept moving. (I learned later in physics classes that this is because the rotating wheels of a bike act as gyroscopes.) I kept turning widely, barely missing the cyclone fence and brick walls of the school building that bounded the schoolyard.
After a few afternoons of practice, Joe decided it was time to take the bike outside the schoolyard and ride around the block on the sidewalk. I was very nervous about that idea knowing the bike had no brakes, but Joe assured me this was not a problem because the sidewalk was usually vacant. Then he jumped on the bike and headed for the schoolyard gate as I watched nervously, remembering the admonition of Joe's father. However, after a few minutes, Joe returned with a big smile on his face and reported that the trip went fine. "Are you ready to try, Frankie," he asked? I tried to pass on this, but Joe coaxed me to get on the bike and gave me a push, comforting me with, "Don't worry, I'll stop you when you get back".
I made a sharp turn out of the gate to avoid going into the street and with my heart pounding, settled down to try to stay on the narrow sidewalk. Happily, I negotiated the first two corners successfully and started the run down the long side of the block when the problem occurred. Ahead of me, halfway down the block, a rather inebriated gentleman came out of an alley, turned away from me and began staggering along the sidewalk. What was I to do? There were no brakes and the only way I had ever stopped the bike before was when Joe grabbed it and slowed me down. All I could manage to do was to keep pedaling to maintain control and hope something would save both of us. It seemed that whichever side of the sidewalk I maneuvered the bike to, the drunk staggered to the same side, and now I was only a few dozen feet from him. I was too panic-stricken to shout a warning as I closed the final few feet and rammed the front wheel of the bike right into the drunk's arse! He lunged forward and let out a fierce shriek.
The impact stopped the bike. I jumped off, made a U-turn and started running wildly back the way I had come, frantically pushing the bike alongside me. The drunk came after me, but in his condition could not keep up with me as I scrambled back around the two corners and finally into the schoolyard. Joe asked what had happened, but without stopping to explain, I ran behind the school's fire escape and hid there with the bike until the enraged drunk had stumbled by. That was my last ride on Joe's bicycle.
Sometime after that, Joe and I moved to different parts of town, and we didn't pal around much, although we continued to see each other at school. During the summers before and after our senior year at ACHS, Joe and I worked together at the A.C. Post Office, where his father was a civil service employee. Later, when I was compiling a list of colleges to apply to, Joe mentioned that he and Charlie Favazzo were both interested in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, so I read about it and added it to my list. It turned out that the three of us were accepted by RPI and we all decided we would go there. I remember when Joe and I got together with both of our mothers to buy heavy clothes from the Sears catalog including olive-colored parkas for the frigid winters of upstate New York.
Joe and I roomed together that first year in one of the college dorms. He pledged the "Deke" fraternity with Charlie and I pledged the "Delts". Hell Week was exactly that for all of us. During our college days, we ran into each other many times on campus and at those infamous fraternity parties. A few times, we traveled together to Atlantic City for the holidays.
The last time I saw my pal Joe Merendino was in Atlantic City sometime in the middle '60's, a year or two after college graduation. By that time, Joe had married a girl named Ellen, I think, and he decided to become a computer programmer. He was really excited about writing Fortran programs for the new computers that were becoming important in science and engineering.
Joe died in 1988. He was 48 years old.
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