Red Hook Swimming          


            From my kitchen, in our home, an apartment over a laundry, I could see Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty.  A block away were the bulkheads that extended along the Red Hook waterfront, and the nearby piers and shipyards that were the main features of this waterfront area.  I was ten, when it was necessary for me to learn to swim.  My first lesson is emblazoned in my mind.  A persistent tormentor of mine, Mike, and four of his cronies, saw me sitting on the pier.  Mike, at twelve years of age, had established himself as the local Dykman Street bully, and the leader of a handful of followers. On Mike’s command, they spread out fanwise as they neared me.  I tried to escape but they dragged me to the edge of the bulkhead.   With a cigarette dangling from his clenched teeth, Mike snarled, “Swim, Jewboy.”   They pushed me off the bulkhead into the bay.


            Swallowing water and thrashing about, I heard their laughs and caught blurry visions of their faces watching me.  My frantic yells, “Help me! I can’t swim,”  only provoked more of their laughter.   I was under water when the current swept me against a piling.  In grateful desperation, I hugged it, and moved myself around it, where they could not see me, under the pier.  They would not help me.  I knew that there were some pilings that had large, telephone-pole climbing-nails hammered in them, that acted as a ladder to climb to and from the top of the bulkhead.  The piling next to the one I was holding had such a means for my escape.  I waited, as I caught my breath and my senses.


            I heard their voices,  “Where is he?  Maybe he drowned.”  After a while I heard Mike giving orders and instructions.  “Let’s get away from here.  Remember, we don’t know nothing, if we’re asked.  We haven’t seen him.”  After their voices diminished in the distance, I pushed myself from the piling and with the current helping me, I slashed and kicked myself to the piling with nails.  Despite the chill of the water, I waited some more before I cautiously climbed up and looked over the edge of the wharf.  No one was about as I climbed over the edge, and took a roundabout way home.


            I did learn to swim, mostly by myself, in the early mornings, or when no one was about, I would climb down a dock ladder or piling with nails, and swim from piling to piling, and in time I could swim fairly well.  In Broad Channel Hall, a Turn Verein outpost, and on Brighton and Coney Island Beaches, my swimming ability improved. At times, some friends and I would  swim from Brighton Beach, along the Coney Island Beaches, and come ashore in Seagate.  This community was surrounded by a wall, and entrance guards protected the residents from unwanted visitors driving there from elsewhere. The ocean approach was unguarded, and offered some of the more daring swimmers to come ashore and mingle with the area’s elite.  After some time, we would swim back to Brighton Beach. The swim of a few miles seemed a feat of endurance and daring, but it was not difficult.  We would start our swim with the incoming tide, and even if one only floated, the current would carry us the distance.  We would return to Brighton by swimming with the outgoing tide.  In Boys High School, I was on their swimming team. 

Red Hook Swimming    


            Of the graduating class of Red Hook’s Public School 30, only five completed high school.  I had little contact with any of the area youth, in fact I avoided them.  My academic and physical goals did not conform to those in Red Hook.  By sixteen, I was active with physical development;  gymnastics, swimming, wrestling, and track.  One late fall afternoon, I finished my homework and went to sit on the wharf and watch the activities in the harbor.  Coming from the back of the wharf were four past acquaintances.  Mike, a cigarette dangling from his leering lips, quickened his pace when he saw me. It had been a long time since I had seen, or had contact with him. Whenever possible, I had avoided him and his ilk.  Mike approached with an active and aggressive stride and look, but I was no longer the frightened, timid youngster.  He was older and larger than me, but I knew that I was in much better physical condition.  With calmness and composure, I moved along the wharf  to a location where I could cope with the demands of a coming conflict.  Suddenly I felt a desire for revenge and retribution, for the past ignominies Mike made me suffer.  Turning to face him,  I stood on the edge of the wharf and goaded him into thinking I was docile and compliant as I pleaded, “Please, let me alone.” 


            “Long time no see.  Where were you hiding, Jewboy?” he snickered, and with vacuous stupidity his pals followed with snickers of their own.  “How about going for a swim?” he spat and with outstretched arms he lunged to push me off the pier.  At the auspicious moment, I grabbed his wrists and pulled him with me off the wharf and into the water.   I had taken and held a big breath.  He had not, since he had not expected my move.  As we hit the water, I pulled him under and twisting him around, I hugged his chest violently and heard the remnants of his breath escaping. Swimming and pulling him under water, I reached a piling, under the dock, where I knew nails protruded.  Grabbing his belt, I fought his thrashing arms and body, until I twisted his belt around an underwater nail.  Taking an unseen breath under the dock, I dove under water and surfaced a few feet from the wharf and looked up at the surprised faces of Mike’s three cronies. 


            Climbing on the wharf, I faced them.  “Where’s Mike?”  one of them said.


            “I recognize two of you that were with Mike years ago, when you threw me in the water. Remember?”  The abrupt transition from abject submission, unnerved them.  I grabbed the two by their throats. The third one did not try to help them.  He raced away.  I marched them backwards to the edge of the wharf, and punched each one hard in the solar plexus, in order to remove any aggression from them.  They were now whimpering and cringing.  “Now, find Mike.  He’s stuck under the dock,”  I ordered, as I grabbed one by his belt, and twisting the arm of the other one,  I forced them to the edge and shoved them overboard.   I watched until they found an inert and almost dead, Mike.  I even helped them bring him up onto the wharf, and waited for an ambulance to arrive.  I was never annoyed by them again.  Mike may have suffered some brain damage.  His speech changed, he stuttered.   He lost status among his peers, and he ran whenever he saw me.