Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The Wildest Times of My Life: Catholic School Bazaars in the 1970s

For many people, Catholic school is nuns, confession, communion, getting rapped on the knuckles and being terrorized into submission by adults who have an all-powerful invisible friend that confers on them the ultimate superiority.

As someone who began to question the whole religion thing early on but kept conforming, I suppose I was part of the problem. Later, I would condemn superiors who I felt “pretended to be religious” out of the desire for personal gain – going to the same church as the boss in order to suck up to him or her – but I have to confess I did it, too, for a while.

Where I grew up on 80th Street in what was then called Elmhurst in the Queens borough of New York City (a Zip code change much later resulted in the area being relocated into Middle Village) there were three big Catholic parishes: Our Lady of Hope (OLH), on Eliot Avenue; Resurrection-Ascension (known to all as RA); at Eliot Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard; and St. Adalbert’s (known as St. A’s), on 83rd Street in Elmhurst.

I went to OLH, my friend John across the street went to St. A’s and some of the other kids on the block went to RA.

Catholics might have seem repressed, but their fundraising bazaars have to be the stuff of legend. I still recall being taken as a child to the “Feast” in Brooklyn, where you could eat Italian food, bet on horse races (in the days before OTB) and gaze with fear and wonder at the guys in see-through socks on the street corners.

Closer to home, all three parishes mentioned above ran their own fundraising bazaars, and in contrast to the image of the Church as strait-laced and repressive, they could and did literally turn into bacchanals of food, fun and frivolity for all ages.

I didn’t lose my virginity at a Catholic school bazaar, but I bet there are plenty of my peers who did. I did have my first – and last – bad experience with alcohol at the RA bazaar, though, in which I actually blacked out. I experienced fun, disappointment and a lot more, and regret sometimes not being back there to experience them again.

Let’s just say that people really cut loose back then, and maybe the pope wouldn’t have approved.

Fun and games – and a surprise – at OLH
At Our Lady of Hope, the bazaar’s preparations would begin and we students would lose access to the schoolyard, which is where the bazaar’s attractions were located. Workers would assemble the tents’ frames, then put up the tents, and the students in grades one to three who sat in classrooms that overlooked the schoolyard would lose much of their sunlight.

No one cared because the bazaar was coming and that meant seeing friends outside of school, fun food and rides, as well as the possibility of prizes.

Access to the schoolyard had to be severely limited, and security obtained, especially after the prizes for the games of chance were distributed in the tents.

I remember one opening day as a small child, and I was waiting outside and watching as some misguided eighth-grader was dared to climb the fence before the bazaar opened. I recall that he climbed the chain-link fence and came down on the other side, but when he tried to come back his friends kept preventing him. Eventually, he was caught, brought back through the gate and released with a chewing-out.

In addition to the games of chance, there was gambling and kids my age were allowed to bet. There also was a ferris wheel and a couple of other rides.

I still remember that great year when, on the final night of the bazaar, a grand prize drawing was held for a bicycle. My brother Patrick won the bicycle.

The thing was, we thought we’d get the bicycle they showed in the tent, but my father instead received a boxed and disassembled bicycle. I think dad paid a local bicycle store $25 to assemble the bike, and I know Patrick got a lot of use out of it.

Disappointment at St. A’s
St. Adalbert’s had its bazaar after OLH and RA, when it held one, but it was a disappointment. In any case, we were bazaar’d out by this time, and because St. A’s had such a small outside area, nearly all of it was indoors.

Going all the way at RA
There were some wild times at OLH’s bazaars, but the biggest of them all was at Resurrection-Ascension. RA had a huge land footprint, including a gigantic schoolyard, and the rides were pretty extensive. The gambling operation was in a recreation building and down a flight of stairs, which protected it from the elements, and whenever I think of the RA bazaar I can remember it being packed with people.

As a teenager, I can recall some pretty brutal disappointments with girls, including finding out that the girl I had a crush on was a smoker, but there were fun times.

On one occasion, a girl got on this ride where you basically were on the end of a line and spun around. I was standing near her friends and she got on the ride and realized that she was losing her shoes. She was wearing these chunky wooden platform sandals that girls wore back then, and I guess she decided that she’d better take them off and toss them before they landed in traffic in the street.

One shoe landed near her friends, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd behind me.

One of my fondest memories is the walk down the tree-lined Eliot Avenue to the bazaar, and sometimes running into school friends on the way.

But as my crowd got older, we began to get a little crazier. My last memory of the RA bazaar must have been in 1977 when me and my friends went to a liquor store up Woodhaven Boulevard and bought a bottle of some concoction called “Rock and Rye.”

We had beer, and passed around the “Rock,” and were having a great time. My memory starts to fade in and out. I remember being on the Woodhaven Boulevard side, then somehow we were on the Eliot Avenue side.

I was lying on the sidewalk, and I heard one of my friends say, “He’s really drunk. We have to get him home.”

I then sat up and announced, “Let’s go.”

The next thing I knew, I was in my bed and I had a fat lip.

As it turned out, I had tried to bite the curb and my father had not smacked me in the face.

He opened the door to my room, saw me awake, and said, “Boy, you put on one hell of a performance last night.”

I remembered none of it.

Now it’s nearly 40 years later and I live in Florida. But I’ll never forget those times.

Memories
I posed a question on the Facebook group “You Must Have Lived in Middle Village if You Remember …” and got a ton of responses. Here they are, unedited:

Frank Nagy OLH had the Bazaars, I remember Puking on the “Tilt a Hurl” ride

Frank Nagy And the rickety Ferris wheel ride..

Vincent F. Safuto At the last RA bazaar I attended (1977, I think), I got so drunk I blacked out. Good thing my friends got me home.

Marty Muller I remember all the fights at the RA bazaar! Every year same shit ! Lol

Lawrence Burns My Dad worked the gambling tent and the poker games in the brothers house on Eliot ave..Those games went on all night till the early morning…..R.A. good times….

Teresa Grogan You could hear the shouts from the other end of the block “UNDER!!!!!” “It’s UNDER!!!!” LOL

Tony Marine My uncle also dealt poker there!

Jay Scahill Remember the ones at RA. Wish I had pictures

Christine Blondel Maddalena Lots of beer pot and fights lol

Maria Puglisi Definitely “Here comes the rollllll …Under!” lol & the Swinging Gym.

Lydia Bellafiore Best times of my life with my gramps

Debbie Hoffman-Silvagni RA bazaars, the best! Looked forward to it every year!

Doris Tavella I took all my allowance savings ($40 +) and gambled it away at over- under tables. Dang… my Dad was annoyed by my irresponsibility! That was odd, however in the 70’s that minors could gamble at RA ?
All good memories and my losses were like tithes to the church 🙏🏻

Vincent F. Safuto Back then I liked to gamble at the tables, but I had slightly better luck. I know that you could gamble at OLH and no one even bothered to stop you.

Doris Tavella Yes, I recall the tables and probably gambled at OLH. Got it out of my system before I turned 18 and as an Adult in Vegas, I usually go to the shows instead. Thanks RA and OLH… you taught me at a young age that I did not like to loose $

Ken Lenczewski Man, I was young but I remember the OLH bazaars. Lots of fighting and I heard someone was stabbed there

Doris Tavella PS…. I also puked after tilt a whirl and told my Mom it was because I ate belly bombers from White Castle on Queens Blvd. uhhh, oops, did I forget to tell her what I drank that night before the rides….LOL !

Vincent F. Safuto I heard about the dances at OLH that ended in fights and drug ODs, etc.

Ken Lenczewski There was some serious gambling going on in the cafeteria.

Vincent F. Safuto I remember at the RA bazaar one year a girl went on one of the rides and realized she was about to lose her shoes, so she reached down and tried to toss them to her friends.

One shoe landed nearby, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd. And remember, this was when teenage girls wore clunky platform sandals, not flip-flops like today.

Doris Tavella Ha ha, those platforms and clogs are back in style … especially the hard wooden ones like Dr. Scholls.

Vincent F. Safuto Doris Tavella All I can say is I was glad I wasn’t the one who stopped the shoe with my head.

Jeannie Opitz Hernandez Always went to RA

Carolyn Specker Cerrito Not the 70s, but the early 80s

Chris Kiernan Sure do
Worked them for years OLH

Tony Marine My family and neighbors worked the RA bazaar for years. My mom and aunt worked the stuffed animal booth, my grandmother used to sell paper chances that you would peel and read to see if you won. My uncle dealt poker. So many great memories. My cousin and I would buy a bag of zeppoli’s (sp?) and eat them behind the booth my mom worked in. I have a special memory too – my friend and I were riding the ferris wheel. It stopped at the top and we had a great view of the whole bazaar. We looked over across Woodhaven blvd, and there was a large, naked young woman walking across the street. She was wasted. She made her way across the street and started to mingle with the crowd until she was finally grabbed by the cops! True story.

Vincent F. Safuto Love these stories and they’re all great. Doesn’t anyone have photos?

Ken Lenczewski I love these stories, brings back so many memories

Joanne Stankovic Sorry, I would go to St. Margaret’s.

Maureen Zahn Scotch OLH bazaars were the best. I was young when we moved but it seemed like we would get a bag of zeppolis??, lots of powdered sugar!!

John Camilleri My Dad ran a lot of the OLH bazaars for years. I would work in the change booth. All everyone has commented is true, the rickety Ferris wheel, the gambling and what not. The big prize in one of the booths was a 12 inch BW TV!

Jeri Calvaruso Knobloch I went to OLH and I remember the carnivals well but don’t have any pics.

Denise Orphal Baietto I went yo the RA bizzare and won a bottle of wine when

Denise Orphal Baietto I was 16 lol

Martha Tambini I went to RA and just remember having to sell those chances for the bazaar.

 

March 22, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | 1 Comment

Fond memories of LaGuardia Airport

Growing up in Queens, I always felt a sense of ownership about a couple of places where I spent some of my time.

Juniper Valley Park may not be as historic or well-known as Central Park, but it has a special place in my heart as the place where I first played adult-supervised baseball in elementary school, played tennis and softball, and jogged along its trails in later years.

Small, feisty LaGuardia Airport shares some of the qualities of my favorite mayor as well as the name, and it was where I spent some enjoyable and fascinating time when I was a teenager. It was a simpler era, before the days of heavily armed airport security, when there seemed to be nothing wrong with having a large, open observation deck overlooking the main tarmac and gates, and you could actually watch your loved one’s plane taxi out and take off.

Try that today.

Vice President Joseph Biden recently said LaGuardia is the kind of airport you might find in a “third-world country,” and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said it was “ranked as the worst airport in America.” Maybe it’s small and dangerous to land there, maybe pilots fear runways that end in water and maybe it lacks the amenities we’ve come to expect in airports, but gentlemen, that’s my airport you’re talking about.

I really am not all that qualified to speak of the comparative qualities of American airports since I haven’t flown on the airlines in several years and haven’t been to LaGuardia since the mid-2000s, so my affection for the place is more sentimental than practical.

One Sunday in the early 1970s, my parents decided to take us to LaGuardia to watch the planes from the famous observation deck. My father paid the 10 cents for each of us and we went through the turnstiles, then up to the deck. It was like an amazing world to me.

I was already airplane-crazy, and here they were: DC-9s and 727s, mixed in with smaller planes and even the occasional DC-10, landing, taxiing to the gates, unloading, loading, being backed away, starting their engines, taxiing to the runways and heading off to new destinations. It was a heck of a show for an impressionable young teenager.

In our Middle Village-Elmhurst community, when the wind was right, the planes coming into LaGuardia would fly over the houses, sometimes pretty low, and I’d always stop to watch one pass overhead. With a telescope my parents had bought me, I’d follow them and keep logs of their passage, including the time, type and airline.

I learned that two buses, one to Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street, and a free transfer to a second that ran to LaGuardia, meant that for the fare at the time (maybe 50 cents each way) I could go see close-up the best show in town, so far as I was concerned.

A few weeks later, a neighborhood friend of mine and I made the trip. We jumped the turnstile – no one was watching – hung around on the deck, watched the planes, talked, then walked around the terminal, had lunch in a restaurant and then spent some more time on the deck. We came home from a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of plane-spotting and planned to do it again.

On other occasions when my friend wasn’t available, I’d go to LaGuardia alone. With an aircraft-band radio built from a kit, I’d listen to the various radio channels – ground, tower, terminal information and approach control – and spend the day watching the planes come and go.

One time, a group of college kids showed up and filmed a student movie on the deck, paying close attention to filming a plane approaching and landing. If there wasn’t much happening, I’d walk around the airport and watch the people. I never even thought about trying to stow away on a flight or get past the airport security of the day. My goal was to watch planes, not get arrested.

I guess there was one day when I spent a bit too much time at the airport because my mother became really concerned. She called the airport and had me paged, but I was on the observation deck and didn’t hear the page. An airport employee approached me and asked me who I was and where I was going, and I said I was just enjoying the takeoffs and landings.

Sorry, the person said, this was an airport, a place of business, and no place for a teenager to be hanging around. I guess it was a sign of the times that the person took me around not to the security office or the police office, but to find out if the airport’s Explorer post had room for one more teenager. It was full, the person learned, but I should write for more information.

Afterward, I was walked to the bus stop and advised to please not hang around the airport. I went home, where my mother gave me a good chewing out and advised me to stay away from the airport. So I went back to logging flights that flew over, and dreamed of airplanes.

Later in life, I’d work on planes in the Marine Corps, get my private pilot’s license and occasionally fly someplace. Coming into New York City, I always tried to get departures and arrivals at LaGuardia for the convenience of my parents, who were coming to get me and drop me off, and the memories I had of the place.

It may not be the most modern or the most-loved, but it’s the airport where I fell in love with flying and aviation, for good and for bad.

When I did fly anywhere, I always loved to arrive at the airport hours before my flight and walk around the terminal, watch the planes take off and land, and remember when I was teenager and walking around LaGuardia Airport seemed like the most natural and enjoyable way to spend the day.

So maybe Biden thinks it’s a third-world hellhole, but for me LaGuardia will always be my favorite airport.

February 19, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The golden days of small ball

A few years ago, The New York Times ran a story about how some young boys were getting “Tommy John” surgery on their so-far uninjured arms.

The hope was that they’d get a little more velocity. In the major leagues, a fastball that’s faster by 1 or 2 miles an hour can mean the difference between being a superstar and a scrub.

Sports at all school levels is taken a lot more seriously now, and while football and basketball gain a lot of the attention because a player can jump from college to the majors, baseball has its share of little games, even at the lowest levels.

I remember playing CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) baseball when I was at Our Lady of Hope (OLH) elementary school in Middle Village, N.Y. Back then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, everyone took the game a lot less seriously, and the idea of a parent going ballistic over a coach’s decision on who to play or an umpire’s call on a close play was way beyond the realm of reality. This was elementary school baseball, and no one was even thinking about whether they’d make the majors.

I played, and remember that I wanted to be a catcher like the Mets’ Jerry Grote. But I was short, and couldn’t keep the target high enough, so I ended up in that area where the scrubs always seemed to end up: right field. (The other banishment point was derisively called “left out.” Sensitivity training was years away.)

I still remember my first game in OLH’s intramural league. The coaches laid out a diamond in the middle of the giant open field at Juniper Valley Park and the game began with me on the bench. Soon, the catcher for my team hurt his hand, and then I donned the equipment and took my place behind the plate. The pitcher’s repertoire was the fastball, curve ball, slow ball, and the one that reached the plate and was occasionally caught by the catcher.

I tried to emulate my hero Jerry Grote, but like I said I was too short, and the pitcher kept complaining that the target was too low. That was my first and last baseball game wearing “the tools of ignorance.”

In theory, each of us got to play three innings per game and get up to bat once. It’s hardly a surprise that we’d all go up looking for walks so we’d get on base and get to steal, and very few boys actually went up to the plate looking to swing and maybe ground out or pop out, because that would be it for the week. We didn’t know “Play me or trade me,” but some of us thought it.

Coaches would complain, “You’re all going up there looking for walks,” and I think the umpires would expand the strike zone to keep the game going. I remember that there was one game where in my one visit to the plate I made contact, and grounded out to the first baseman.

There was one game where I didn’t get to play, and I went home and cried in my room.

My father would come to the games, and like I said, this was back when your dad didn’t beat you bloody if you screwed up the game. It was a thrill seeing my father watching me play, no matter how ineptly, at least until he fell on his butt dodging a foul ball. Sorry, Dad.

In one of my most memorable games, the coach stuck me in center field, and a miracle happened. Someone actually hit the ball, and hit it right toward me. I ran in, reached out and the ball hit my glove so hard the glove came off, and I ran back to retrieve the ball and throw it into the infield. I was so embarrassed.

Later in my brilliant CYO baseball career I went out for second base and can remember playing that position. I liked it because I had a weak throwing arm, and second base was pretty easy for me when throwing to first.

One thing that annoyed me was that we had to have a lot of chatter during the game to encourage the pitcher. At games, you’d hear the same thing over and over, like a mantra: “C’mon Jimmy babe, c’mon Jimmy babe, fire it in there.” All that chatter left us pretty winded when the ball was finally hit our way.

We used to wear batting helmets that were pretty heavy, and one innovation that was a real joke was the infamous “running helmet.” It was a contraption you wore on your head that covered your ears and the back of your head, but not the top of your head. I remember one kid I played ball with who ended up in the hospital because he was wearing the running helmet while running the bases and got hit in the head with the ball, which drove a part of the helmet into his skull. He survived.

Back then, though, we were still using wooden bats but there was heretical talk about aluminum bats.

It was great to win the game, but just getting to play and having fun was also important. I think about that nowadays when there are baseball academies for elementary school kids and parents get into fistfights over school games. There’s plenty of time to take baseball way too seriously, and I think the best way to mess up kids’ sports is for adults to get involved.

January 4, 2009 Posted by | The business of sports | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment