Here’s the opening of my novel HALF MOON. Forward-thinking publishers and editors please take note of the link in my FRIENDS category to Writers House, where agent extraordinaire Michele Rubin awaits your call!
Horror on the Hudson
The Hudson and the Palisades – more ancient than man – Rich in historic association – Aloof from the bustle of civilization – yet easily reached by the Alpine-Yonkers Ferry….
From a promotional brochure, circa 1940
This is my earliest memory:
It was 1958, and I was three years old, and I was living with my parents in an old apartment building on Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, New York. I recall very little about the building itself. I can’t tell you what it looked like from the outside. I don’t know the exact address. I don’t know what furniture my parents had, how many rooms there were in the apartment, how the rooms were configured, or even what floor we lived on, although I know we lived on the top floor.
I remember sitting near a window at night and looking south toward Manhattan. I could see the illuminated upper section of the Empire State Building, and the sparkling string of lights that defined the thick steel cables of the George Washington Bridge, and the blurred lines of yellowish headlights on the cars crossing the Hudson River.
Nearer to my vantage point, I could see the traffic on the river. There were a few small fishing boats, believe it or not — this was back in the days when people didn’t know that eating Hudson River fish would eventually kill you. There were barges, which were pulled by tugs, mostly carrying textiles to the carpet mill and finished products from the same mill. There were cruise ships that took tourists and city dwellers up the Hudson River to Tappan Zee and Bear Mountain and West Point.
And there was the ferry, which traveled from Yonkers to Alpine, a small town tucked beneath the Palisades cliffs in New Jersey. The other boats went north and south on the river; the ferry crossed the river, east to west and west to east, which fascinated me when I was five years old, so I asked my mother what kind of boat that was.
“It’s the Alpine ferry,” she said.
“What’s a ferry?”
“It’s a boat that takes people from one place to some other place.”
“Where do they go?”
“From Alpine to Yonkers and from Yonkers to Alpine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do they go on the ferry?”
“I don’t know. I guess they have some place to go.”
I thought about this for a while, watching the lights of the ferry as it crossed from Yonkers, and then I said, “Maybe they like riding on ferry boats.”
My mother smiled and kissed me on the forehead and said, “Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe they just like riding on ferry boats.”
Then she picked me up and danced around the room, which she often did when she and I were home by ourselves.
She liked to watch “American Bandstand,” which was broadcast every weekday afternoon from Philadelphia. Some song like the “The Stroll” would come on, and my pony-tailed mother would glide around the living room, with her young son in her arms, imagining she was one of the teen-aged Bandstand girls and not a woman in her late twenties who had a little boy and a husband.
Every night I sat in my perch, high above the Hudson, and watched the ferry on its voyage.
One night there was something different. The boat stopped halfway across the river; smoke began rising from the stern; then flames, first small but then streaming upward, lit the ferry in a way I’d never seen – with a pulsing, flickering orange glow, not the usual steady pale-yellow light of the strung electric bulbs.
I called my mother, and she came to the window and said, “My God, it’s on fire ”
We watched as smaller boats approached the ferry, and then we saw a stream of water arching from a smaller boat with a flashing red light, and my mother said, “It’s the fire boat,” which sent a tingle right through me. I could see quickly moving, shadowy forms, backlit by the flames.
I guess the wind was right, or the night was quiet, for I could hear the muffled sounds of men who were shouting urgent instructions and warnings, and of women and children who were screaming and crying. My mother also heard these sounds, and closed the window, and took me to my bed, and tucked me in, and talked about other things to take my mind off what I had seen.
Years later, I checked the microfilm library at the Yonkers Herald, and found the article published the day after the ferry fire:
HORROR ON THE HUDSON
Three Aboard Vessel Missing After Fire
Hundreds Rescued from Ferry Boat Blaze
The ferry fire did indeed take place in 1958, according to the newspaper article, which means I was, just as I thought, five years old when it happened.
This means the ferry fire took place thirteen years after the war-bonds rally in downtown Yonkers, sixteen years after the great water-tower flood on Nodine Hill, and a full thirty-one years after the death of my ancestor Thomas Crooks, who worked at the Alexander Smith carpet mill and had a strange and accurate premonition of his imminent death. This also means the ferry fire happened just four years before John F. Kennedy visited Yonkers in 1962 and more than forty years before I finally decided to tell this tale.
But if the ferry fire happened in 1958, before and after all of these events – if this is all true – why, when I remember that fire, do I see Thomas Crooks, dead for more than 30 years, and his true love Anna climbing over the boat’s side rail and swimming toward the shore in darkness lit by searchlights?
Why does the newspaper article report that “three missing people were identified as Thomas Crooks and Anna Baxter, both of Yonkers, and John Masefield, an immigrant mill worker,” when I know for a fact that Thomas was dead by then, while Anna lived for many more years? When I know for a fact that Masefield, soon after the death of Thomas Crooks, returned to his home to England, where he became a famous poet?
Why do I remember that the ferry had a sidewheel, like a Mississippi riverboat? Why do I recall dozens of people struggling to swim through burning debris and flaming oil afloat on the river? Why do I hear screams of agony? Why do I see the words “Henry Clay” embossed on the side of the burning boat?
And why does the newspaper article say nothing about the music?
Why does everyone – the people on shore, the surviving passengers and crew members, the rescuers – remember that music was playing during the fire?
But why does everyone remember hearing different music? My mother swore she heard “Sh-boom,” the 1950s doo-wop hit. Others remember hearing the thin and plaintiff strains of the old Protestant hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” while a few insist a band aboard the ferry was playing a Sousa march.
I myself remember hearing no music at all from the ferry itself, but I recall the somber beat of drums – played by an Indian who looked exactly like the famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa – and I clearly recall a group of high-school girls standing on the pier near the ferryboat slip and singing the Andrews Sisters song “Rum and Coca-Cola.”
And why, in my memory of that night, do I see the lights of the cars on the George Washington Bridge going forward, then stopping, then going backward, then going forward, then forward and backward again, like frames of a rewound movie?
1942: Hitler’s Face
Who can truly understand the mysteries of geology, the plates that shift, the stone that grinds and rubs, the delicate balance and the tension sprung that makes cliffs and mountains burst out of the earth, unleashes avalanches, forces open fissures, and sculpts hard stone into shadowed shapes? Who can truly solve the puzzle of plants, what grows where and what grows when, what roots grip and what roots rot, how dense the growth or how sparse?
Who can explain how and why, in early 1940, rocks tumbled, tree sprouted and moss bloomed, and the pilot of the Alpine-Yonkers ferry became the first to notice that the face of Adolph Hitler had appeared on the Palisades cliffs? The newly published brochure for the ferry hailed the Hudson as “the Rhine of America,” and now the madman of the Rhineland looked down upon the river.
A writer for the Yonkers Herald described what was promptly dubbed “Hitler’s Face,” suggesting that it took some imagination to see the face of the Third Reich’ leader in the tumbled rocks and vegetation on the face of the cliffs.
“On the other hand,” the writer said, “a careful study of the rock formation does indeed suggest the face of modern evil – even the thick band of dark moss above the `upper lip’ of the scowling countenance.”
“If nothing else,” the newspaperman concluded, “the sudden appearance of Hitler’s Face sneering down at our fair city from the cliffs across the river may serve as a constant and welcome reminder of the precious freedom we possess and the very real and sobering threat to freedom posed by the German despot and his Nazi henchmen.”
Less than two years later, America had joined the war against Hitler. The city’s industries switched to the manufacture of war supplies. The elevator factory made ball bearings for fighter planes. The carpet mill made parachutes and army uniforms. The sugar refinery produced C-rations. The Yonkers Herald printed on recycled paper, sent free newspapers to the city boys serving their country overseas, and published announcements of rationing and draft calls and blackouts.
My father, just a boy, did his part for the war effort. He memorized the silhouetted shapes of each and every Axis war plane, as well as the Allied aircraft, and early each evening, just before dark, he would walk up Park Hill, climb the stone steps to Van Cortlandt Avenue, scale the steep slope of Elm Street, and then ascend the wooden water tower at the peak of Nodine Hill. He would climb easily over the locked chain-link fence, then go up the 216 steps (he had counted) to the railed catwalk near the top of the tower.
Every night, for an hour, he would study the skies, watching for enemy aircraft, feeling a rush of excitement when a plane came into view and mild disappointment when the shadowed shape revealed itself to be not the vanguard of an attack on the city of Yonkers — with its important wartime industries and strategic location near the port of New York, and with its fiercely patriotic residents, many of whom thought the city fathers should send a demolition crew across the Hudson to dynamite Hitler’s Face, which would send a clear and strong message from the city of Yonkers to the city of Berlin.
One evening in April 1942, my young father was perched in his observation post when he spotted a plane moving quickly south in the direction of New York City, following the course of the Hudson River. The plane slowed down right near the ferry slip and descended until it was out of his sight.
As it happened, it was a small amphibious military plane that was returning four entertainers who lived in Yonkers – the drummer Gene Krupa, the singer Ella Fitzgerald, the comedian Sid Caesar and the actor Art Carney – from an appearance they had made in Albany, N.Y., to raise money for the USO.
But my young father did not recognize the plane and quickly decided that it carried German spies who were secretly landing under cover of darkness to sneak into Yonkers and commit acts of sabotage.
My father didn’t know what to do. He knew that he had to sound the alarm, and quickly, but he had never thought to carry a whistle or a horn to notify the authorities if an enemy plane passed overhead. Just then, he looked down and saw the Nodine Hill air raid warden, who was walking down the Elm Street hill, looking at each apartment house as he passed to make sure all unnecessary lights were turned off and blackout curtains were all pulled down.
My father shouted, but the warden did not hear him. So my father, acting on an impulse, began to pound his fist against a thin metal plate at the base of the wooden water tower. Rust dropped off the metal as he slammed his hand against the plate, making a loud, deep and hollow sound that reverberated like a gong.
Just as the air raid warden shouted “Hey, kid ” when he noticed the figure of the boy atop the tower, my father’s fist hit the sheet metal one more time – and a drop of water landed at his feet. It was dark, so my father didn’t notice the drop of water.
But then there was another drop, then another drop, then a thin but steady drip, and then my young father heard the water as it pinged against the steel walkway. The pinhole widened, slowly giving way to the irresistible weight and pressure of the million gallons of water stored in the 50-year-old wooden tank with a sheet-metal bottom that had been patched, but never replaced, because of wartime cuts in the city water department’s budget.
My father scampered down the 216 steps, intending to warn the air raid warden that Nazi infiltrators had landed on the shores of Yonkers. Just as he reached the bottom step and began to climb over the chain-link fence, there was a thunderous rumble. My father thought later that it sounded very much like Niagara Falls, which he heard about 15 years later when he and my mother honeymooned there and rode the Maid of the Mist beneath the Horseshoe Falls. The metal at the base of the tank gave way, the warden blew his whistle, my father scampered up a weeping willow tree, and the water erupted out of the tower.
This was the Great Flood of 1942. A great crest of water poured down Nodine Hill, following the paths of Oliver Avenue and Elm Street and Maple Street. The wall of water slammed against parked cars, overturning many of them, toppled wooden sheds, flooded basements and first-floor apartments, and knocked over the air raid warden, who tumbled two blocks, carried along by the rushing water until he managed to grab hold of a telephone pole and climbed up the metal footholds to escape the deluge. At the foot of Nodine Hill, low-lying streets were flooded three feet deep, and the next day’s Yonkers Herald carried photos of residents of the Getty Square area rowing boats on lower Palisades Avenue.
There was one death reported. An eight-year-old girl named Katie was in a rowboat with her father, stood up, slipped out of the boat, and sank into the murky water. Her father leaped out of the boat, desperately reached under the water, and finally felt his little girl’s foot. The desperate father pulled her out of the water, the newspaper reported, “but water had filled her lungs and she was not breathing…”
The father, his daughter cradled in his arms, splashed through the water and reached dry ground, then ran up the hill of Palisades Avenue to St. John’s Hospital, “but the doctors — despite the best efforts of a team led by the hospital’s chief of surgery, Dr. Charles A. Leale III — could not revive the drowned girl,” who was buried two days later at Oakland Cemetery.
In the commotion and chaos that followed the collapse of the Nodine Hill water tower, my father managed to slip away, cutting through backyards and climbing over fences, making his way to Van Cortlandt Avenue and back to Park Hill, where he went quickly to his room, turned on the radio, and listened to the latest episode of “Inner Sanctum.”
He didn’t tell anyone what had happened, even after he read that the little girl had died – probably because the little girl had died – and he kept his secret until the day he died.
There was much speculation that the water-tower collapse had been the work of German or Japanese saboteurs. The wooden tower was replaced with another tower made of steel, which was refilled with water pumped through hoses run from the Hudson River through Getty Square and up Nodine Hill.
And, sometime in late 1945, just months after Hitler died in his Berlin bunker, a rock slide obliterated Hitler’s Face.
For who can truly understand the mysteries of geology, the plates that shift, the stone that grinds and rubs, the delicate balance and the tension spring that makes cliffs and mountains burst from the earth, unleashes avalanches, forces open fissures, and sculpts hard stone into shadowy shapes?
1945: Buy Bonds
What with Hitler’s face peering down from the Palisades, so that every day the people of Yonkers had to do nothing more than look to the west to be unavoidably reminded of the great and horrible war still being waged in Europe and the Pacific against the forces of evil, and what with the great wave of patriotism that swept through the city in the aftermath of the great water-tower disaster which many suspected was the work of Axis infiltrators, Yonkers was a prime location for holding a rally to sell war bonds.
The mayor of Yonkers was named honorary chairman of a special committee to organize the bond rally, which was scheduled for April 1, 1945, to be held at Larkin Plaza in the downtown area a few blocks from the Getty Square business district, right near the post office, the ferry slip, the historic Phillipse Manor house and the Yonkers Herald building.
The day after the location and time of the event were announced in February of that year, the Herald ran a front-page article about it:
“Entertainers Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney and Sid Caesar will appear at a bond rally to be held April 1 at Larkin Plaza, city officials and USO representatives announced yesterday.
“The goal for the event will be to sell $20,000 in war bonds, organizers said. Each of the entertainers, who are all city residents, will appear free-of-charge.”
My young mother, still in high school, read the next paragraph to her best friends, Lorraine and Charlotte: “And it says, `USO officials issued a special invitation to Yonkers residents to demonstrate their singing talents while helping the war effort. Tryouts will be held this Saturday for amateur performers, with one individual or ensemble selected to appear in the show.’’
“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,” my mother began to sing.
“Anyone else but me, anyone else but me,” the other girls sang.
“Pardon me, sir, is this the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” my mother sang, and the other girls made whoo-whoo sounds like a train.
“Do you really think we can do it, Ginny?” Lorraine asked. “Get up in front of all those people?”
“Sure we can ” my mother replied.
So they decided to give it a try. All three were in the 11th grade at Yonkers Business High School, all three taking the secretarial course. Charlotte worked on Saturdays at Mimi’s, the fancy department store in Getty Square, Lorraine worked after school at Frost’s Bakery on North Broadway, and my mother worked Saturday afternoons as an usherette at the downtown RKO movie theater, where she would meet my father a year later, when they were both 17, when he would get a job there as an usher, and her would let her borrow his little flashlight when her own little flashlight went dead.
My mother and her friends were big fans of the Andrews Sisters, and most of their repertoire consisted of Andrews Sisters songs: “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Accentuate the Positive” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” were their best numbers. My mother and her friends also liked the softer ballads done by the three singing sisters: “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “I Wanna Be Loved” sometimes struck a chord, when the mood was right. But their favorite Andrews Sisters songs were the ones with the wild harmonies and the jive rhythms and clever wordplay, like “Pistol-Packing Mama” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby?).”
They had started out by singing along with the songs on the radio; then my mother had gotten the idea of performing at the high school’s talent show. They had recruited a drummer and a trumpet player from the high school band; and Charlotte’s cousin, Al, who played the piano, had joined the group because he had a really bad crush on Lorraine, who reminded him of Betty Grable.
Ella Fitzgerald herself showed up at the USO show auditions held that Saturday. There were three sets of Mills Brothers impersonators, all of whom sang “Glow Worm.” There were Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra imitators. And there was a group of high school boys who wore cowboy outfits and performed a slightly off-key rendition of “Cool, Cool Water” by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
My mother and her friends didn’t have a name for their group, which hadn’t even occurred to them until Ella Fitzgerald, who was standing at a microphone set up in a corner of the stage, asked them their name.
“We’re the Baxter Sisters,” my mother replied. “And we’d like all of you to help us help our boys overseas defeat Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini by buying War Bonds. We’re going to do a song by our favorite singer…Miss Ella Fitzgerald.”
The drummer hit the skins, the trumpet player started to blow, the piano player pounded the eighty-eights, and my mother began to sing “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest hit:
… A-tisket, a-tasket
A green-and-yellow basket
I bought a basket for my mommie
On the way I dropped it
The small gathering of amateur entertainers and city officials and USO representatives cheered wildly when Ella herself glided across the stage, head swaying and fingers snapping, and joined the Baxter Sisters in the final refrain:
Was it red?
No, no, no, no.
Was it brown?
No, no, no, no.
Was it blue?
No, no, no, no.
Ella and Baxter Sisters together as the audience roared:
Just a little yellow basket.
A Yonkers Herald reporter had this to say in the next day’s paper:
“A singing group called the Baxter Sisters stole the show at yesterday’s talent tryouts for the upcoming war-bonds rally at Larkin Plaza. The three girls, all students at Yonkers Business High School, wowed the crowd – and Miss Ella Fitzgerald – with a finger-snapping, foot-tapping rendition of Miss Fitzgerald’s hit record, “A Tisket, A Tasket.”
April 1 arrived, and a crowd estimated by the Yonkers Police Department to be about 5,000 people gathered at Larkin Plaza for the big USO bond rally. Many had taken the train to Yonkers from New York. Several hundred had come over from New Jersey on the ferry Daisy from Alpine Dock to Peene’s Dock in Yonkers. And three people had walked down to Larkin Plaza from Park Hill: my father, who was there with his father, who had brought along his friend, Sam Berkowitz, who would someday become the grandfather of a little boy with dark curly hair and an oval face named Davy.
The Yonkers High School All-Star Band, made up of the most talented musicians from the city’s five high schools, opened the festivities with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by the singing of the official Yonkers song, “which was technically named “By the Banks of the Beautiful Hudson” but was known to most people by the first few words of the song’s chorus:
“We love our lovely river, where e’er we chance to be…’’
After the band played, Mayor Chester Nodine, gave a lengthy speech in which he praised Yonkers residents for their contributions to the Allied war effort, predicted that one day Hitler’s face would crumble from the cliffs of the Palisades “on the day that our boys march into Berlin,” and thanked Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney, Gene Krupa and Sid Caesar “for taking time from their busy schedules on Broadway and in Hollywood to help their home town help our boys win the war.
“And now, ladies and gentleman,” the mayor of Yonkers said, “it gives me great pleasure and it is a great honor for me to introduce Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa – with two strangers they met this morning on a street corner in Getty Square ”
Krupa hit the snare drum and the cymbals and the bass drum simultaneously and, right on the downbeat, Ella began to sing:
I dropped it, I dropped it
Yes, on the way I dropped it
A little girlie picked it up
And took it to the market.
Krupa’s band – Sam Elridge on sax and Roy Donahue on trumpet – sailed off on a bebop riff, and two rubber-legged characters wearing funny wide-brimmed hats and baggy clothes, two crazy hipsters, jitterbugged out onto the stage. The crowd roared with laughter as Sid Caesar and Art Carney snapped their fingers and swung their hips and made believe they were playing the saxophone and trumpet, as Carney playfully pushed Krupa away from the drum set and imitated the drummer’s frenetic style, with dark hair flying over his forehead and arms moving so fast they blurred, and Caesar stepped to the microphone and did an affectionate parody of Ella’s scat style.
She took my yellow basket
And if she doesn’t bring it back
I think that I shall die.
Then Ella, Carney and Caesar left the stage, and Krupa’s band played a couple of their big hits, “Wire Brush Stomp” and “Blue Rhythm Fantasy,” then Ella sashayed back on stage, right in the middle of “Blue Rhythm,” and Krupa and his band switched effortlessly into Ella’s sultry version of “Making Believe It’s You.”
When she finished the song, the crowd roared for more, but Ella stepped to the mike and shouted, “And now, my favorite girls, from right here in Yonkers, the Baxter Sisters ”
My mother stepped forward and sang in a low, bluesy voice:
If you wanna hear my story
Then settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewin’
The attitude of doing right.
Charlotte and Lorraine jumped in and the three Baxter Sisters sang the Andrews Sisters’ smash hit, “Accentuate the Positive,” with my mother singing the lead:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said, “We’d better accentuate the positive”
“Eliminate the negative”
“And latch on to the affirmative”
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between — no
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
The Baxter Sisters were scheduled to do only one song, but the crowd was calling for an encore. My mother looked to the side of the stage and saw Ella and Krupa nodding their heads at her. My mother hesitated – but then Krupa and his band scooted back on stage, Ella ran out and stood beside the Baxter Sisters, making them a four-girl group, Krupa shouted, “Rum and Coca-Cola ” and my mother smiled and shimmied and belted out:
If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time
Ella, Lorraine and Charlotte chimed in:
Drinking rum and Coca-Cola
Strangers danced with each other all around Larkin Plaza, swinging and jittering, and those who didn’t dance shouted out the chorus, “Rum and Coca-Cola ”
The crowd was still in a frenzy, cheering for the Baxter Sisters, when the song stopped and Ella called out to the crowd: “This young lady can really swing We’re going to do one last song together ”
Ella whispered to my mother, “Do you know `Ferry Boat Serenade?” That was another big hit by the Andrew Sisters. Of course my mother knew “Ferry Boat Serenade.”
They took turns singing verses, singing without the band – except for Krupa, who gently brushed the snare as Ella and my mother sang a capella.
I have never been aboard a steamer
I am just content to be a dreamer
Even if I could afford a steamer
I will take the ferry boat every time
I love to ride the ferry
Where music is so merry
While boys and girls are dancing
While sweethearts are romancing
Ella and my mother together, with their arms around each others’ shoulders:
Happy, we cling together
Happy, we sing together
Happy, with the ferry boat serenade
My mother beamed as Ella hugged her. The other Baxter Sisters ran up to the front of the stage to take their bow. Krupa twirled his sticks, caught them in midair, rapped on his bass, and took his bow. Carney and Caesar stumbled out onto the stage and drew cheers and laughs as they leaned forward to take their bows – and tumbled forward and off the low stage.
And then the cheers and laughter and applause were interrupted by a shout: “The ferry is on fire ”