Day One (or two?) of Stuyvesant High School, September 1959
The old man, a bricklayer by trade, growled “It’s time!” as he headed for the door well before dawn, tools and work hat in hand. He rushed by my anointed spot on the living room couch without so much as a sideways glance, as if to say we had serious tasks to carry out in this world and be thankful there’s a roof over your head, thankful that education was the current lot of youth rather than a factory floor or the hard streets of eleven and twelve year old hawkers and vendors. My father had a point. Steeled to this rather unique wake up call, I was already fully conscious, responding with a defiant, monosyllabic “Up.” There was no “good morning” or “have a nice day” in this Bronx household; “It’s time!” would have to do.
The Great Depression and “The War” shaped my parents’ and neighbors’ blue-collar lives and imparted deep-seated insecurities: jobs were thought to be precarious, sick days non-existent, vacations an unaffordable luxury, and rent money often problematic. Paycheck to paycheck living was the order of the day. If a particular construction project ended or was delayed by inclement weather, my father holed up in the bedroom like a wounded animal, fearful of being seen on the street. After all, unemployment was sinful and threatened the social fabric. (“Why aren’t you at work?” were his final deathbed words to me in 1980.) Families were deeply scarred by the economic hardship of the 1930’s, the anxiety-ridden appeasement of fascism— W.H. Auden referred to “a low dishonest decade”—and the existential threat of conflicts in Europe and Asia. The Cold War threatened yet another cataclysm to come. Fathers and brothers were missing or maimed in body and spirit, lives had been thwarted, and frustration often led to irrational aggression–the terms child and spousal abuse are currently employed for such errant behavior.
The notion of a “Greatest Generation” meant little to me! In any case, that was THEIR life; my perspective was decidedly one of youthful exuberance, optimism and limitless opportunity. Good times had, in fact, come to America, and kids like me had a chance, a real chance. An excellent high school, college (?), and who knows what else was within reach. More importantly, my all-consuming passion for athletics could be pursued at the secondary school level, and perhaps I would make the grade–I must make the grade! All this emotional Sturm und Drang transpired just shy of my fourteenth birthday.
The morning of my first commute to high school is etched in memory: fifteen minutes to the station and one hour on the subway (wicker seats, an overhead fan barely revolving, riders packed like sardines, no student hijinks permitted among working class folks. (Well, buddies Howie Medoff, Shelly Sachs, Judah Ronch, Fred Feingold, Joel Krumerman, et al., eventually livened up the dreariness.) Subway-goers looked gaunt and tired—no obesity epidemic back then—and the ride to 14th street and Union Square showcased characters of all types. The crowd was a tableau of faces, a blurred backdrop that allowed one to drift off a bit. I really had one thing on my mind, though, and it wasn’t education and classes. Cross country practice began at 3:30 sharp!
Why did I choose cross country tryouts on that particular September day more than 60 years ago? So many factors and experiences came into play, all leading in one direction: distance running.
* Stickball, “hardball” (baseball), handball, basketball, street football (broken collarbone, ankle, fingers– dangerous terrain) and every conceivable sport and game were what I lived for. It was as simple as that. The streets, avenues and walls were fields and courts, the arenas where one could strut his stuff on a daily basis. I use the word “his” advisedly, since girls were relegated to the sidelines in that antediluvian era. A narrow escape from a passing car or truck in the neighborhood’s four-cornered intersection was a small price to pay for executing a daring catch. And who cared about missing lunch and dinner if I could hold down a handball court against all comers? In retrospect, I recognize the physiological and psychological upside to this frenetic, crazed activity, not that anyone was thinking in terms of “working out” or “improving one’s core.” Clad in well-worn Keds, the endless hours spent running and jumping on concrete and macadam created a reservoir of stamina and a mind-set inured to fatigue. It was a matter of pride to be among the last boys standing. God knows the opportunity cost involved!
*Roger Bannister’s poster loomed large in the Junior High School 135 seventh grade gym class. His name was on everyone’s lips. This brilliant medical student and British Olympian had been the first track athlete to break the previously impenetrable four minute mile barrier—a 1954 hero for the ages. With a long, graceful stride straining for the finish line, a face contorted with pain and presumably joy, Bannister stirred the imagination. Lost in thought, I stared at his lithe form three times a week. Today, LeBron, Brady or this or that high-priced star get all the ink and attention, but competitive mile races were on the front page of the various sports sections of the 50’s and 60’s and even made page one of The New York Times on a regular basis. Wes Santee of Kansas, John Landy of Australia and Lazlo Tabori of Hungary were also in the hunt for running immortality. Who would be first to breast the tape under 4:00? Well, the glory went to the most amateurish fellow, the supremely talented Bannister. And, yes, a 12 year old could dream, inchoate as those dreams might be.
*Some role models were closer to home. Tom Courtney of Fordham University captured the 800 meter gold at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, and Manhattan College’s Lindy Remigino had sprinted to victory in the 100 meters in the 1952 Helsinki Games. Both campuses were just a jog away. Villanova’s Irish import, Ron Delany, was the 1500m victor in ‘56; he could be found racing in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park. Fordham, St John’s, Manhattan, and NYU–uptown campus in the Bronx until ‘64 with a world indoor mile relay of Kenny Hendler, Steve Damashek, Jimmy Wedderburn and Cliff Bertrand–seemed to rule the running world. You get the point: track was a big deal and I resided close to the center of this exalted universe; the names and accomplishments of these athletes resonated throughout my life. And I thought it would last forever. It didn’t. Local talent drifted to colleges in Arizona, Arkansas, California and Oregon, and the Australians, New Zealanders, Kenyans and other Africans arrived on the international scene. But that’s another story.
*Orchard Beach, not to be confused with the ‘tar beach tanning salon’ on my apartment building’s rooftop, was situated on a polluted section of Long Island Sound, a 15 cent bus ride from my neighborhood. Built in the 1930’s, “The Bronx Riviera” was 115 acres and 1.1 miles of beachfront, a project emerging from the depths of the Great Depression that created jobs and a ray of hope for a beaten-down citizenry. It served as an all-purpose vacation spot for city kids, and if the stars were aligned just right, I could get there on a few of the hottest days of summer. I usually gravitated toward the hard edge of the water at low tide (high level smell!) and ran and ran. Why not loll about and get a tan? Who knows?Floating along effortlessly creating shallow footprints in the wet sand felt, well, just right. And so it has been.
I made the team that day in September of 1959; so did every kid who trekked to the East 10th Street track, but why quibble about the joyful moments of youth? The prize was a much-darned sweatshirt with an imprinted winged foot proclaiming to the world, or at least to the straphangers on the rush hour Lexington Ave. express, that I had arrived at a wondrous juncture. (The winged foot image stirs my soul to this day!) The successes and failures of schoolboy and collegiate racing were in the future, and more than six decades of seeking renewal on daily runs was unimaginable. But at that precise moment, my narrow world was widening. I knew it full well and rejoiced in quiet fashion. Yes, it was a good day, an excellent day. Inevitably, “It’s time!” would be barked early the next morning and I’d surely try to beat my father to the punch
The years have passed eventfully and ever so quickly, and I am now a man of a certain age on the downside of a seventh decade, an optimistic guy with a healthy dose of foreboding. After all, it’s the final lap, so to speak. Competitive running is a distant, fading memory, though the daily, solitary jaunts in the grass are a “remembrance of things past,” a link to youthful passion, a mini-celebration of those former physical aspirations amid a life currently defined by roles as a husband, father, (now retired) teacher and coach. The legs have slowed, the intensity abated and my musing is no longer about personal records or a particular challenger (What was his name?). The rhythm, the movement, the body’s eventual equilibrium, the rush of air, the surrounding dappled green and brown impressionist effect —all remain gloriously intact from my teens. Thankfully, the gods of running granted me an endless succession of cross country seasons: crisp fall days, the smell of wet fallen leaves and musty, damp warm-ups, spikes biting into the earth and grass, and, of course, a yearly supply of eager young men–far more well-rounded and better adjusted than young Martin—seeking transcendence in some form. They call it a good race or a fine season. Parents gush and applaud, coaches look on with approval and succor the back-of-the-pack runners, peers are ever so supportive, faculty advisers learn of students’ incremental improvement and, in general, the school community revels in such accomplishment. Rightly so. But part of me is that Bronx kid who lived a far different life and bridles at all this hoopla, an alien universe. My initial distance career was a more solitary, driven, limited experience mostly hidden from parents and friends. How things have changed! (And I’ve changed a fair amount to embrace this kinder, gentler world.)
During the first days of early season practice, I distributed training jerseys to a corps of aspiring distance runners, youngsters with varied hopes and dreams. They surely notice the small winged foot emblazoned on one corner of the t-shirt and perhaps even find inspiration in the elegant, lightning fast sandals of Hermes, an Olympian god. For some newcomers, it‘s a symbol of their entrance into high school, a new and challenging fraternity of endless opportunities. It was certainly mine.
I lived in the Boulevard Projects in Brooklyn off Linden Blvd. I was a very shy kid (but there was a valid reason which I am not going into now; it’s another story). Anyway, my local high school was Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Ave. They had a swimming pool and every student had to take one class in swimming. Problem was the boys were required to swim BA (bare ass) no bathing suits. The girls wore bathing suits the classes were not mixed.
I was so scared due to my shyness. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Then I found out that two guys in my neighborhood were going to a special school in Manhattan. I don’t know how the subject came up but they said the school was Stuyvesant and there was no swimming pool! I found it hard to believe butIt was the answer to my prayers.
I took the test and somehow passed. I had no idea what the school was all about but my prayers were answered and I was very very happy.
One of my best personal decisions I ever made.
These next two news items will be of greatest interest to those classmates who, like me, attended City College of NY after SHS (almost 1/3 of our class if I recall correctly).
Dr. Alan Fleischman, one of our SHS ’62 classmates, and a neonatologist at Montefiore Medical Center, was selected as one of four winners of the 2021 Townsend Harris Medal at CCNY. The announcement: https://www.ccnyalumni.org/about/townsend
A Stuyvesant HS / CCNY grad (maybe or maybe not classmate of ours) made an anonymous, incredibly generous, gift to the City College Physics Department. See the story here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/21/nyregion/city-college-mystery-donor.html?
Here’s a story about life in flyover country. We live in the “wildland urban interface” in Colorado Springs and are really uptight about fires. We’ve had many consecutive days of “red flag” warnings for wind and hence fire. Our relative humidity today was 2%.
We live exactly on the line demarcating the mountains and the plains. This afternoon the third fire near us ignited 5.9 miles to our east. Our altitude is 450 or 500 feet higher than the fire and we could easily watch it. We could see the flames and could see a helicopter repeatedly dumping water.
I drank scotch and Judy readied our go-bags. (Don’t ask who is the adult.) After ~2.5 hours it was 1) nominally over and 2) the cops fessed up that they chased someone off-road, got stuck and ignited the fire. Their catalytic converter (the TV peep actually said cataclysmic converter) started the fire.
Alas, my seven-years’ journey through treatment for bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma has reached its end, and I’m in the amazingly quick final decline. It’s been an interesting, varied life, with a good balance among work, travel, pursuing other interests, and all that. I’ve written a summary that should appear in the “yearbook” or whatever we’re calling our recollections document.
I may well not be around for the 60-Year Reunion gathering, nor, if so, able to participate by video. In any event, finding my roots at Stuyvesant was an important part of my life; being amongst other strongly science-interested folks was a great push forward. I thank all of you for your friendship, help, and course corrections along the way.
I am completely open to having classmates know about what’s been happening to me, and would be delighted to rekindle more acquaintances from long ago.
The experience of the last seven years has been good. The treatments kept the cancer from affecting me too deeply, and I had been capable of functioning like a real human being up until a few months ago when the miracles ran out and I started to decline surprisingly rapidly. I’m still able to function, getting less done than I’d like to. Part-time work over the last dozen years has let me keep my life balanced. Eventually that will change, I imagine – I haven’t been down this path before.
Best to all. Stuyvesant gave me a fine place to pursue my scientific and engineering interests, and there’s not much about it that I’d change given the chance.
Sad note: Matt died on 5/20/2022. His obituary: https://www.deefuneralhome.com/obituaries/Matthew-Lawrence-Fichtenbaum?obId=24907191#/obituaryInfo