Brooklyn Boro

Memories are made of this

“The building began to sound like it was in pain.”

April 26, 2021 William A. Gralnick

Why do little children have such amazing memories?

The likely reason is that there’s not very much otherwise clogging up those developing brains. Any schedule-like thing is taken care of by parents – leaving the primary memory concern the location of a favorite toy.

When a child, I saw some things that are as fresh in my memory as if each happened yesterday — but in pondering them, one tops the charts — the fire. This incident is brought back from recent editions of the Eagle than mentioned major fires.

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But I get ahead of myself.

Researchers have confirmed that young children can and do remember, i.e., I remember with clarity the day our German Shepherd “Salty” was taken because of my mother’s allergies. She became a guide dog — Salty, that is — not Mildred my mother.

I remember hugging that big, soft and hairy neck. My parents later pooh-poohed: “You were too young. You’re remembering what you heard us talk about.”

Wrong, say current researchers, discovering evidence which demonstrates that children can have early memories, especially of dramatic or traumatic events; for me, Salty’s departure was both.

Speaking of traumatic, there was the day when for unknown reasons my mother told me I could answer the knock at the front door. I was 4ish — maybe.

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I opened the door and there stood a black beard encompassing the door way and blocking out the sun — or so it seemed. I recoiled, quickly diving and screaming under the couch.  It was an orthodox rabbi making his rounds for a yeshiva. It was years before I stopped having to cross the street when I saw a bearded man, and well into my early teens before my stomach stopped knotting at the same sight.

I remember the first time I saw the connections sparking on the wires when I rode on a trolley car in Brooklyn.  That, and when coupled with the trolley bells, are clearly memorable events – so much so for apparently many people that the bells became the subject of a popular song: “Clang! Clang! Clang! went the trolley….”

Speaking of memories, I was standing on the balcony of our apartment in that same neighborhood when I heard the noise of an organ-grinder and saw he had a monkey with a little cap. I lengthened my mother’s arm by maybe 3 feet pulling her to the elevator.

The monkey was adorable. When the organ grinder finished grinding out a tune or two I held up a coin my mother had given me. The monkey’s tiny hand with tinier fingers reached out to take it.  I clearly remember he handed it to organ grinder, and then tipped his little bell-hop cap.

In our next neighborhood I developed my dislike for Halloween. We had just moved in and my brother was given the chore of taking me trick or treating.

The houses in the neighborhood were vintage 30’s and 40’s – most with porches and windows on the porches. There was one house in which lived a “spinster lady” who almost never left the house. The house became the subject of wild imaginative speculation – and of course which meant we had to go there.

By the time we got onto that porch I was in a state of near panic.  Now I’m sure my brother set this up but what I remember is no one answering the door and him saying something like, “Let’s not let her get away with that. Let’s look in the window.”

He boosted me up and I was confronted by a giant carved jack-o-lantern with a flaming candle behind its jagged pumpkin teeth. This time there was no couch under which to dive.

I screamed all the way home.

And it was in this neighborhood some years later where burned ‘the fire’ I noted earlier.

It was a bitter cold and snowy winter’s day. The streets were slick, and the sky was a forbidding dark gray as dusk approached. The sounds of sirens could be heard from away – and when those sounds got louder and louder that meant the problem was closer and closer.

Curious, we began to drift out of our houses on this nasty Saturday afternoon – whereupon we could not only smell the smoke, we could see it. With that realization, all of us took off toward the fire on Avenue H, only 3 blocks away.

The fire scene rivaled anything ever seen on TV. Huge, black waves of smoke poured from every orifice in the building. People were hanging out of windows. Bricks had fallen out of this 8-story apartment house and smoke was coming out of what here-to-fore had been – well, a brick wall.

And the roof. “OMG!” as it would be texted today.

Pillars of fire seemed to be standing on top of the building. As it burned, the building began to sound like a Rice Krispies box that had been part of a Japanese horror movie. There was snapping and crackling and popping. The building began to sound like it was in pain.

Men in large rubber jackets and swept back hats had put up a line to keep all the freezing gawkers at a safe distance. Alarm after alarm was called in until the fire became the storied five “alarmer.”

Yes, it was awe-inspiring to see the ladders go up on the walls and firemen bring people down to safety. Yes, it was breath-taking to see circular nets held out for people to jump into. Yes, it was frightening to see and hear the windows shatter from heat so intense it could be felt hundreds of yards away. But the most distinct memory is about fighting of the fire itself.

The hoses poured water onto and into the building. As soon as the water hit the building it began turning to ice as it rolled down. To this day how that happened in a fire I don’t know — but there it was:

  • On the walls.
  • On the cars that hadn’t been moved.
  • And on the trees along the sidewalk, ice flow patterns had formed.

As we watched, those patterns changed constantly because more and more water in turn changed the flows. The street itself became an ice-skating rink. Fire truck tires were encased in ice. The firemen were slipping, sliding and cursing while lugging hoses, or racing with entry-creating-hatchets from one place to another.

Fires don’t just end. Like in a fireplace they sort of die out. Eventually the flames became smaller followed by less intense heat and the fire finally under control.

At that point we began to realize how unspeakably cold we were; unspeakably because our faces were numb and we couldn’t speak — so we went home.

Once a normal corner in a normal neighborhood, the next morning the corner of Avenue H and Rugby Road looked like a war zone. And there stood the old apartment building broken, battered and charred with big, black scars of soot reaching eerily in random directions.

That was 60 years ago, give or take. Tell me again children don’t remember.


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  1. Kids are snotty petri dishes full of all kinds of communicable germs. The less we see of their dirty, slimy faces and hands, the better. They have no sense of personal hygiene and therefore, offend the space they occupy. Maybe this is due to bad parenting. Regardless, avoid their presence as much as possible unless you are responsible for their creation.