COMMENTARY: Heroes, a Small World, and Nonsense


June 23, 2014

My mom and dad were my heroes along with our fantastic generals and admirals of WW II who accomplished what wouldn’t be possible today.

Mom’s father got killed at work, leaving a widow with seven young kids. The eldest had to quit school and earn money to support the family, as there was no welfare or food stamps. Mom dropped out in 8th grade and became a playground director at the school she had attended. The job title today would be gym teacher. She lived in Down Neck, Newark, NJ, which was all Irish, and she taught all the Irish police, fire, and politicians. She went on to be a paymaster in a shipyard and worked in teen recreation and child care and nurseries. She was the secretary of the Irvington, NJ, Democratic Club.

Dad left school in 9th grade from the German neighborhood of Newark. He joined the army in WW I and became an officer. He became a city firefighter and retired as a deputy chief. In WW II he joined the Navy and left as a full commander. When WW II started he trained the soldiers from Fort Monmouth who were now firefighters. The fire engine from Fort Monmouth came to the Irvington drill tower where he taught firefighting and safety. He taught all 1,000 Irvington teachers first aid in case we were bombed by the Germans. He organized, trained, and equipped the CD Firefighters in Irvington.

The Irvington Fire Chief was James Thompson, Jr., who was way ahead of the curve. In 1938 he came up with the idea of an Emergency Squad that would respond to every kind of an emergency with a main mission of saving lives. My dad was put in charge of the Squad for the 84 hours a week he was on duty. It was a beautiful white fire engine with a huge spotlight and a powerful, very loud motor. It carried all kinds of equipment for fighting fires and saving lives. There were probably around seven husky men on the Squad, all first aiders, and one man was a police officer who dressed and worked like a fireman but who wore a police badge, had a pair of handcuffs, and was armed. The men on the squad got little sleep because they averaged three calls per night.


The Chief had a beautiful Desoto car, all fancy red and gold paint with lights and siren, and one day Dad and the Chief set out to the Norfolk Naval Base to learn about incendiary bombs. This was around 1942, and as they were coming down Route 13 near Melfa, workers were in a field and the chief said something on his PA system. The workers had never heard a PA in a car and fell to their knees thinking the Lord was speaking.

Now some small world stuff: The Chief retired to Chincoteague and then later James Thompson III also came to live on the island, where he worked with the Zoning Department. He later worked for Accomack County in Zoning. I knew Jim all my life, even used his address when we were homeless so I could go to Irvington High School, and in the winter we shoveled snow together to earn money. We were in the same homeroom in high school.

The nonsense: We spent billions on air raid drills and training, etc., — and how pray tell was the Luftwaffe supposed to get to New York and Irvington? As a kid I was scared a Messerschmitt would strafe my house. I was on a bus in New York City one night when the air raid sirens went off and we sat there in the pitch dark waiting for the “all clear.” Old men became air raid wardens and wore CD helmets and armbands with police whistles and if they saw a light coming from your house they blew the whistle. The man across the street was deaf and never heard the sirens or that darn whistle! In school we went to the basement and put our heads against the wall.

More small world: Mom made me learn my school lessons, especially math. I came to love math and science and became an 8th grade math and science teacher. Over the years I taught thousands of students plus had contact with clubs and other duties. Some of my students from Manahawkin, NJ, live in this area. A few years ago I wound up in the nursing home in Parksley for rehab following a hospital stay. Two of my sons were visiting and were talking about the Mullica River, and the man in the next room asked if they were from New Jersey. They said they were and that their father taught school up there years ago. He said, “Ask if he knows Phil Fors,” and I said do you mean “Flip” Fors? Turns out he was my science student in 1960, and here we were in the same nursing home in Parksley, Virginia.

Flip was a very nice boy, grew up to be a very nice and generous man, and I must say I was very lucky to have lived and taught where I did with such a very good bunch of kids. I coached the school rifle team and everywhere we went they remarked about what nice kids we had. We had a gun club which was one of the most popular on campus with four faculty sponsors and gave the hunter safety course for shotguns and archery. They hunted before and after school and had guns in their cars and trucks. They brought guns to school on the bus and kept them in their lockers to shoot after school and there was never any problem with a weapon.

How things have changed!

Submissions to COMMENTARY are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles. Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily of this publication.



3 Responses to “COMMENTARY: Heroes, a Small World, and Nonsense”

  1. Kearn Schemm on June 23rd, 2014 3:36 am

    As a fellow native of Newark, I found this all very interesting. I would disagree, however, that “Down Neck” (or Ironbound, as it is also called) was all Irish. There were plenty of Germans there too — so many that during WWI many of the street names were changed from German ones to “patriotic” American ones – one example is Wilson Ave. Now Down Neck is the most vibrant section of Newark with many Portuguese and Spanish restaurants and bakeries, a great place to eat.

  2. Andy Zahn on June 23rd, 2014 10:18 am

    I never knew that Germans lived “Down Neck”. Dad lived on Shipman St & attended St Mary’s where the Mass was in German. He went to their school with the Brothers & they demanded perfection. They were the reason he went so far in his life.
    After the army I spent a summer driving for Ballantine’s Brewery and saw the change in Newark’s, and for that matter all of Essex County’s, neighborhoods. In the area they still have fine foods but so many ethnic shops are gone and that goes pretty much for the whole state of NJ. We used to know where to get a great corned beef on Jewish rye, a wonderful Italian sausage sandwich, a “dirty” Jewish beef hot dog, a just smoked Polish Kielbasa and Jewish and Italian bakeries where the smell of fresh baked bread & rolls made you never want to leave. The fisheries and the great variety of sea food and places where you could get a take out of fried oysters or a quart of boiled shrimp.

  3. Joe Vaccaro on June 23rd, 2014 12:10 pm

    Thank you for this story!
    It’s so good to read these snippets of history as seen through the eyes of people who lived during these different phases of America.

    These stories keep me coming back to the CCW for entertainment and information.

    Thanks again.