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Mineola Memories: Parkies

As the summer of 1962 arrived, so did I, returning home from my first year away at college. With the next three months at my disposal, after a little searching and a couple of phone calls, I secured a position with the Village of Mineola Recreation Department as a playground attendant at Wilson Park, an area that had become a welcome replacement for the Village’s outmoded sewage plant. Although the actual title was an imposing “Recreation Supervisor”, my co-workers and I were affectionately referred to by our young charges as “Parkies.”

Our director, Karl Brittel, set up an ironclad schedule for us: a four day week, each day consisting of an early shift, a late shift, and overlapping coverage by two of us during the mid-day peak hours. At $1.50 an hour, we were each automatically paid for a 40-hour week. Sick days and time off were accommodated by exchanging hours or dollars amongst ourselves. My late-shift days started at 10:30 a.m. and, with the exception of a one hour supper break, continued until I closed up shop at 9:30 p.m.  Since Wilson Park was basically a massive pedestrian thoroughfare leading to the Village Pool, it attracted large numbers during the summer months.

As part of our routine, we kept litter under control using the classic canvas bag and a stick with a nail on the end. Cleaning the restrooms was also on our list of daily responsibilities. Our more glamorous duties included teaching, bandaging scrapes, repairing equipment, keeping big kids off the little swings, little kids off the big swings, and, in general, maintaining a safe and somewhat orderly environment for dozens of youngsters. Even on a crowded playground, you could easily spot us in our T-shirts of school bus yellow with royal blue sleeves.  None of us complained when these were eventually replaced with navy blue golf shirts.

During the month of August, the park held a massive tennis tournament.  This event attracted many players of all proficiency levels and the Village awarded trophies to finalists in the various age categories.

My colleagues included Tom Reilly and Carmine Angrisani who, by his own choice, was known by everyone as “Waz.” My former classmate, Gene O’Neil, was a member of the staff who tended to Memorial Park on the west end of the village.  Each of us contributed to the operation according to his own individual strengths. Tom was great at teaching arts and crafts and Waz was an outstanding tennis player and instructor.  I did pretty well operating the stick with the nail on the end.  We made a good team and even had our own “Parkie” song, a parody based on the old sentimental melody of Mother: “P is for the papers that we pick up, A is for…….” well you get the idea.

Tennis, shuffleboard and tetherball were always popular activities and we regulated their use by means of a most important book in which participants entered their name, address, and the current time. Not only did this insure proper sequencing and equal time for everyone but provided a degree of accountability for the playground equipment.  Many of our daily “regulars” would just give us the nod, and we would complete the paperwork from our database of memorized names and addresses.  In addition to the required sign-in procedures, an hourly “census” was taken of the picnic, playground and wading pool areas.  At the end of the season, all information in “The Book” was used to provide statistics on use of the various features of the park for the year.

One of Mr. Brittel’s innovative creations involved placing golf tees on one end of a tennis court and hanging large canvas targets from the fence at the other end, thereby creating a compact driving range for use by the park’s adult visitors.  The popularity of the range proved to be its downfall, however, for the canvas barely lasted one season.

Of all the areas in the park, I think the tetherball courts saw the most action. It was everyone’s lifetime ambition to win just one game against the undisputed champion, Debby Pastor. Deb was a spirited eight-year old who was as much a permanent feature of the park as one of the trees. Ms. Pastor showed no fear and no mercy. Although she was the same size as other kids her age, she would humble all opponents young and old by winding the tetherball and its attached rope around the pole in a matter of seconds.

After I returned from my supper break, the “early shift” would go home, leaving me on my own to enjoy a somewhat more serene park and cooler temperatures. Required chores during the evening shutdown included turning on the lights at the softball field and lowering the flag at the Union Street entrance to the park. Since this involved a trip covering the equivalent of several blocks, I would traditionally commandeer a bicycle for the mission – often with the child attached.

As closing time approached, I would clear out any stragglers, drain the wading pool, and lock up all equipment, doors and gates. Sometimes there were individuals who had trouble understanding the concept of “The park is closed.” These were relatively harmless youths who had probably seen West Side Story or Blackboard Jungle a bit too often. While their contemporaries were tinkering with cars, delivering newspapers or playing stickball, these “didley-bops”, as we called them, spent most of their time being irritating and (if it didn’t seem like too much work) causing vandalism.  Under such circumstances, departmental procedures mandated a request for police assistance. In those years, the 911 phone system was not yet in place, but the number of the 3rd Precinct was always within easy reach. As my no-pay overtime approached 15 minutes, I would place the call.  Usually, just the sight of Officer McQuillan or Crispo slowly driving by was all that was needed for these rogues reconsider their actions and slither out the gates.

As Labor Day weekend brought the summer activities to a close, many of my young friends wanted to correspond with me during the upcoming school year. My college buddies were very jealous of all the letters I received from admiring females – until they spotted the penciled text with one-inch high printed lettering.

Although my two-year career as Recreation Supervisor is long over, I am fortunate to have been in contact with some of the people with whom I shared those summer days. A few months ago I touched base with Waz and we caught up on 48 years during lunch.  Several years ago I received a surprise phone call from the “Terror of Tetherball,” Debbie Pastor Quintal, who still has her upbeat personality and now has two wonderful grown children of her own. Waz, Debbie, and her two sisters, Jane and Pat, were most helpful in unraveling some memories as I prepared this article.

One beautiful day last summer I took a leisurely walk through my old domain. I was surprised to see many changes, the most obvious being the fact that the park was as beautiful as ever, but uncomfortably silent. This and recent school closings confirm the fact that, compared to the ’60s, there just aren’t as many children around. A roving Park Department staff member was monitoring the grounds but, with no one “recreating,” there was no need for supervision. There will be no tetherball rematch with Debbie; the tetherball and shuffleboard courts are gone. In their place stands what appears to be a hockey rink. State Place, the wide road that entered the park from Westbury Avenue has been reduced to a narrow walkway.  The Sinclair gas station that stood at the corner is now home to the Mineola Historical Society.

Years ago, the large window on the front of the park building provided access to a soda machine that had the tendency to dispense the beverage, and then drop the paper cup.  On the day of my visit, the same window opened up to a well-stocked refreshment stand complete with an attendant on summer vacation from college. As I purchased a soda, he congratulated me on being his first customer of the day. It was 1:30 p.m. I briefly chatted and compared notes with the young gentleman who did not work for the Village, but for the food concession.  According to his comments, the didley-bops of old must have actually raised families, for their hooligan grandchildren occasionally appear at the park and attempt to linger after hours. He was also surprised (but not thrilled) when I pointed out that his food stand was constructed in the ’30s and had originally been part of a sewer processing facility.

There are many aspects of that job that have continued throughout my later life.  On national holidays, for example, I cannot display Old Glory in front of my home without recalling my evening bicycle trips to Union Street. Hopefully some of the skills I acquired during those summers were put to good use during my years as an elementary school teacher.  I consider it my good fortune to have had that experience during those not-so-quiet days in the sunshine at Wilson Park   If someone were to seek out a recipe for a unique summer job, here was one that offered an interesting combination of ingredients – extra money, irate taxpayers, exercise, screaming kids, fresh air, many of Mineola’s most delightful families, wonderful memories and lifelong friends. Put them all together, they spell “Parkie.”