fresh air


Concerned that it was bad for us to spend all our time in the city, my school arranged for the whole third grade to be bussed to the suburbs for a day of fun. Well-meaning, perhaps but in the end it was cruel and it became one of those days I would remember.

There was once a social program called something like “the fresh air fund” that brought city children to visit the country. Social programs never reached me since my mother would never allow us to become involved with such a thing.My school principal, Mr. Cole, who we loved fiercely because he always managed to convey warmth an love to us, was married to the principal of another school and that is where we went. We spent the morning playing fun outdoor games on the school’s great lawn. After that we were paired with one of their third graders and went home for the afternoon.

I went home with none other than Mr. Cole’s little son and we played quietly in his room after a lunch made by his mom. They lived in a house! I remember the view from his bedroom (he had his own bedroom!) on the second floor was just the leaves of a great tree, the sun streaming through.

The time came to walk back to his school, board our buses and go home. Something went wrong with me because I told Mrs Cole I could not go back. She was dutiful in asking me what was the matter and I told her if I went back I would only die. To my surprise there was quite a stir, consultations with the representative from my school, etc. I was asked to elaborate on my statement and said something about how if bad people didn’t get me I would just die in the war. I even told them about the foreboding I carried about how I was fated to die. A thing that I never told to anyone else at any time. I was sent home on the bus, of course.

One day when I was 34 years old and still a fresh air fund kid, I was enjoying a rare day out of the city with my new girlfriend who lived in Queens and had a car. We drove past the school and the memory of that day returned for the first time. Remembering, I saw the depth of the lack of hope that colored those days. I had no expectation of survival.

In those days my information about the draft came from my classmate Eric, whose information came from his father who was a veteran of Patton’s army at the Battle of the Bulge. Eric’s father was also a famous pediatric psychiatrist and one of a famous family of doctors. I think Eric became a doctor and inherited his father’s “institute” in California. I’m pretty sure Eric was also a damaged soul. Peace to you my old friend. The news about the draft was bad because I had been holding on the the possibilty of growing up, being bigger and stronger and maybe escaping the city and my fate.

But it was Tet and the informal word on the street was that all boys had to go and if you went you probably died. Still, I decided, it was better to try to make it to 18 and take my chances in the war because at least you had a chance, apparently. In the meantime I would try to survive.

I was not able to find a picture of the school but it looked like this one in the town of Manhasset, NY. 


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