The Author

Henry Hack is a lifelong New Yorker who served in the Nassau County, NY Police Department for twenty-two years, including fourteen years in the Detective Division.  He commanded the Scientific Investigation Bureau and was qualified as an expert witness in several forensic fields including blood, narcotics, and trace evidence. He also commanded the Eighth Precinct, Uniform Force, and currently resides in North Carolina with his wife, Lorraine.

After attending public schools in Queens and Brooklyn, Henry received a Bachelor’s degree from Adelphi University and a Master’s in Criminal Justice from Long Island University. In addition to his public service on the police force, Henry served as Vice President of Security at Cablevision Systems Corporation. Now an empty-nester with seven children and step-children scattered around the country, Henry devotes his time to writing fiction, traveling, and trying to hit a golf ball straight.

His novels Danny Boy; Cases Closed; Mommy, Mommy; Forever Young; The Marsh Mallows; The Group; Broken Windows; and The Pipes Are Calling feature homicide Detective Danny Boyland. Cassidy's Corner, The Last Crusade, The Romen Society, and Election Day feature Police Officer/Commissioner Harry Cassidy.

Absolution is a stand-alone crime thriller featuring NYPD Lt. Mike Simon.

The Messenger is a stand-alone Sci-fi/fantasy/sports story featuring Hal Logan.

Shades of Blue is a thirteen-part series now available on Kindle Vella.

                                                                                                          Hope you enjoy this memoir


 

 

 

EARLY LESSONS

 

     When the three o’clock bell rang, I grabbed my books and ran out of my fifth-grade classroom at P.S. 96, Queens, and didn’t stop running until I got home, seven blocks and seven minutes later. I tore open the side door of my house and ran into the kitchen shouting, “Hi, Mom,” as I headed for the living room and our new television set. I turned it on and took my shoes off as I waited for it to warm up. Finally, the picture came on and I rotated the large tuning knob – clunk, clunk, clunk – until the channel I wanted appeared. And there they were, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in black and white miniature on our brand-new, first-ever, Zenith television set with a twelve-inch round screen.

In the early fall of 1951, I was ten years old, and I was watching the third and final playoff game between those two teams. And this one was for all the marbles. The winner would be crowned the champions of the National League, and the losers would face a long winter of the second-place blues muttering, “Wait’ll next year…”

On the first game of the series, the Giants beat the Dodgers 3-1 at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers’ home. The next day at the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants, the Dodgers walloped them by a score of 10-0. Today, Wednesday, October 3, again at the Polo Grounds, the teams were 1-1 after seven complete innings when my mother entered the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, about a foot in front of the TV set, and I figured she’d say one of two things. “How many times have I told you not to sit so close to that thing, Joseph? You’ll ruin your eyesight.” Or, “It’s a beautiful day. You should be outside playing in the fresh air, not watching baseball on this…this contraption.”

But to my everlasting horror, she said neither of those things. She said something that would deprive me of seeing one of the most thrilling moments – if not the most thrilling moment – in baseball history, a moment that has since not been equaled. She said, “Don’t you have a dentist appointment at four o’clock, Joseph Keller?”

Oh, no!  She used my whole name! This is serious! “But Ma –”

“No buts. It’s a quarter to four. Get going!”

“But Ma, it’s only a five-minute walk and –”

“It’s a ten-minute walk, and you should be a few minutes early anyway.”

“But it’s the eighth inning –”

With that she turned off the TV and said, “Put your shoes on and go. Now.”

 

*  *  *

 

Head down, totally dejected, I walked the two blocks to the dentist’s office. Down 134th Street to Rockaway Boulevard, along the boulevard, across 135th Street, to the entrance door. The doorway to doom as my sister and I called it. I opened the door and faced the stairway to the execution chamber. I trudged slowly up the cracked linoleum- covered stairs as the familiar odors of pipe tobacco and peppermint life-savers assaulted my nostrils. The dentist would chew the life-savers to mask the odor of the tobacco on his breath, so he wouldn’t offend his patients. It didn’t work, but I, for one, was never offended by the unusual mixture of smells.

I reached the top of the stairs and walked into the waiting room. It was empty. I was no doubt the last victim of the day and would be in the chair of pain right on time. Then a miracle happened. Doctor Diamond came out of his small kitchen, puffing away on his pipe, his white dentist’s smock unbuttoned at the neck, and said, “Joey, would you mind coming into the kitchen to listen to the end of the ballgame with me?”

Would I mind? I was struck dumb for a few seconds and then stammered, “S-s-sure, sir, that would be fine with me.”

 As I followed him into the room, the sudden realization that the stern, square-jawed, no-nonsense dentist was an actual human being, who actually liked baseball, was a revelation of biblical proportions. We sat at the small wooden table on the old wood chairs, hunched over an old Philco radio. He fiddled with the tuning dial and the announcer’s voice became a bit clearer. He turned the volume up a bit too loud and said in his slight Eastern European accent, “Vun inning to go.”

“It was one to one when I left home,” I said.

“The Dodgers got three in the eighth. That should do it.”

The way he said it made me believe he was a Dodger fan. I said nothing as the Dodgers went down one-two-three in the top of the ninth. The dentist re-lit his pipe and chewed nervously on the stem as the Giants came up in the bottom of the ninth inning.

 

*  *  *

 

Simon Bernard Diamond, a Rumanian Jew, came to America in the early thirties, thankfully getting out before Hitler’s rise to power and the attempted annihilation of Europe’s Jews in what later became known as the Holocaust. He was my dentist because he was my parents’ dentist, and like my parents’ and my sister’s teeth, mine were soft and chalky resulting in many visits to his office. The memories flooded back of drilling, filling, extractions, and root canals. He did them all, and I had them all. He was a one-man show and a perfectionist with his slow-speed, belt-driven, electric drill. Many years later, a dentist I was “visiting” said in admiration, “Mr. Keller, whoever did your fillings was an Old-World craftsman.”

Dr. Diamond also took impressions and made false teeth – a complete set of dentures for my Dad and an upper plate for my Mom – and I figured that would someday be my destiny as well, but fortunately that never happened. Dentistry soon advanced into the modern age of crowns and implants, saving me from the task of putting my teeth in a glass of water every night at bedtime.

 

                                                          *  *  *

 

Alvin Dark led off the inning for the Giants with a single. Don Mueller followed with another single. Dr. Diamond gripped the edge of the table and his pipe moved in his mouth from side to side. He relaxed a bit when Monte Irvin popped out, but then Whitey Lockman doubled home a run and it was now 4-2 with runners on second and third. The Dodger’s manager brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thomson. A sensational rookie named Willie Mays took his position in the on-deck circle. On Branca’s second pitch Thomson blasted a home run to left field winning the game 5-4, in what was to become known as the “Shot Heard Round the World.” As the announcer screamed, “The Giants win the pennant” over and over, Dr. Diamond slapped his powerful hand on the table muttering some unintelligible words, probably a curse or two in Yiddish,  then viciously turned the knob on the radio to the off position. He stood up and said, “Let’s go. Get in the chair.”

Uh, oh. He was a Dodger’s fan, all right. Wisely, I had not said a word. I was neither a Dodgers fan nor a Giants fan – I was a Yankees fan, from the first moment I saw Joe DiMaggio gracefully running down fly balls in centerfield with a kid named Mickey Mantle waiting in the wings to replace him. But on the way to the chair I said, “What a shame for that to happen.”

He sort of grunted and mumbled something about “lucky” and “impossible” as I sat down and he got out the big needle to numb the molar he would drill and fill. An hour later, relieved it was over, I walked out of there onto Rockaway Blvd. and ran into a friend whose father owned the hardware store over which Dr. Diamond’s office was located. He said, “Didja see it, Joey!”

“You mean the home run?” I said to Neil Hamilton as spit drooled out of the numb side of my mouth.

“Yeah! Wasn’t that great? I hate the Dodgers.”

“Don’t tell that to the old guy up there,” I said, pointing above the store. “I didn’t see it, but he had the game on the radio.”

“Too bad, guess you’ll have to wait until the newsreel at the movies comes out. They’ll have it for sure.”

 

*  *  *

 

As the years passed by my visits to the dentist became more than for tooth repair. In addition to being an Old-World craftsman, he was a New-World philosopher. We discussed many topics of interest besides baseball – science, nature, politics, culture, and religion, and on that last topic he startled my fourteen-year old self when he said, “You know, Joseph, I don’t believe in God.”

Now I had always believed Dr. Diamond to be a devout Jew, and I was shocked at his statement of non-belief. I said, “Really? Why?”

“If there was a God, he would not have let six million of his chosen people die in the gas chambers.”

That statement hit me right between my devout Roman Catholic eyes and I said, “But you believed in God before that?”

“Yes.”

“And you reasoned that if God saved the Jews from the wrath of the Pharaoh, He should have intervened during the war?”

“Correct, but He chose not to, because I have concluded He does not exist.”

“You do know I was taught to believe in both the Old Testament of Moses, as well as the New Testament of Jesus?” I said as I tried to comprehend his loss of faith.

“And you still believe in them both?”

I took a deep breath and said, “I sure do.”

He smiled and said, “Good for you. I hope your beliefs are correct and will sustain you. I hope you never conclude, as I have, that they are two beautifully written books of myths and fables. Enough of this now. Get in the chair.”

 

                                                     *  *  *

 

There was another person who greatly affected my thinking processes and outlook on life during those early teenage years – Mary E. Vogt, principal of P.S. 155 Queens. During the summer between the sixth and seventh grades, Miss Mary E. Connolly, became Mrs. Mary E. Vogt. Now, a teacher getting married was not unknown to us, but they were usually

the young, pretty ones, the ones who were the subject of our early teenage fantasies, who did so. Mrs. Vogt was old – at least thirty-five, maybe even forty. And who would marry her anyway? Not that she was ugly, but she was terrifying, at six feet two inches tall, exhibiting a command presence that made us cower in fear. A female general George Patton, if you will.

Her brown hair, showing some signs of gray, was pulled back in a tight bun. She dressed in business suits of drab color – gray or brown – with similar colored, low-heeled lace-up shoes, and wore a neckerchief above her buttoned-up white blouse. Sometimes, but not often, the neckerchief had colorful hues in it, adding some semblance of non-drabness to her stiff-backed, dominating appearance.

I was a good speller and once won the school championship when I was in the sixth grade. I loved learning new words and always searched for ones which could replace terrifying, as applied to principal Vogt. I came up with ogre, bestial, monster, and fiendish, but truth be told she was none of those. Stern was a good one, but I think the best was intimidating. And intimidate us elementary school kids she most certainly did, and it was obvious she did the same to the teachers who reported to her. She was the captain of the ship in every respect, and woe to anyone who disobeyed her orders or broke her rules.

Gradually, my opinion of the Principal of P.S. 155, Queens, changed. Every week she spoke to us at the school assembly and tried to impart some lesson of life, or experience, or unique piece of knowledge to our young minds that wasn’t to be found in any of our textbooks. This was her opportunity, I figured, to step away from her routine administrative duties and back to the classroom for at least this short period of time. It was at these talks I learned about figurative language, especially similes and metaphors, and alliteration. And she would occasionally throw in a sprinkling of foreign words or phrases, usually in French or Italian, designed to broaden our horizons. He was dressed cap-a-pie and frequented his pied-a-terre stands out clearly in my memory.

During the holiday season that winter, she read us an excerpt from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to instruct and impress upon us the power of description as applied by the author to his principal character, Ebenezer Scrooge. …Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire…The cold within him froze his old features…he carried his own low temperature always about with him… and I believe it was at that moment that a thought was planted somewhere in my young brain that whispered, Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to write like that?

Principal Vogt spoke in precise prose with faultless pronunciation. You would never hear any Brooklyn-ese coming out of her mouth. She wouldn’t say pickcha for pick-tyoor – not on your life – and she would expect us to follow her examples. Those brief lessons, as I now think back on them, contained key words to reinforce her teaching points – deportment, behavior, conduct, honor, integrity, truth, cleanliness, procedures, and most of all, rules.

One must follow the rules of our school and then it would be easier to follow the rules for a successful life after we left here, she insisted. And there were lots of rules – where to line-up for the morning bell, when to line-up for the morning bell, and ditto for the lunch bell and dismissal bell. Rules for which doors to enter and leave the building, which direction to walk in the hallways, and which staircases were “up” and which were “down.” Violations of these rules were in the form of oral or written reprimands by the teacher who noticed them. Repeated violations meant a trip to Principal Vogt’s office for a talking to.

Any student who continued to violate the rules after the talking to – I mean, how stupid could you be? – had his parents called to come down for a meeting. That usually did the trick, because a suspension came next. I had only two trips there, the first for fighting. I escaped with just a dressing down and a stern reminder that we were all getting bigger and stronger and really should be smart enough to put this dangerous behavior to rest once and for all. The second trip to her office, along with my best friend, Georgie Stewart, occurred in the eighth grade because we cut school to go to a baseball game. Not just any game, but an opening day game with the Brooklyn Dodgers going up against the New York Giants. Unfortunately, my teacher, Mr. Erger, and Principal Vogt, did not share our opinion. “We haven’t cut school at all this year, except for this one time,” I protested. “One day at the ballpark isn’t going to make us dumb the rest of our lives.”

“Perhaps, Joseph, I should call Mr. and Mrs. Keller to discuss that erroneous conclusion,” she said, fixing me with an ice-cold stare.

I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry I cut, Mrs. Vogt. It won’t happen again.” Georgie took the hint and said the same thing, and thankfully, she sent us back to our classroom with no further action.

That same April, just two months before we would graduate and move on to high school, it happened – the incident that would forever change how I viewed Principal Vogt. Mr. Erger called on Anthony Puleo to deliver a note from our fourth-floor classroom to a fellow teacher in a classroom located on the second floor. Mr. Erger, who we secretly called “The Owl” because of his flat nose and black-rimmed glasses which amplified his blinking, brown eyes, was about twenty-five years old, and we knew a similarly-aged, hot female teacher inhabited that classroom to which Tony had just been dispatched.  No doubt a lunch date was being set up, maybe including a little hanky-panky at the park after their sandwiches. Along with the note was the required room pass for Tony to carry. (The Rules, you know). Tony had recently arrived from southern Italy and spoke broken English. He had a wide Neapolitan smile and curly, black hair. Tony never reached his destination with the note that memorable day. In fact, he only made it half-way to the third floor as we were soon to find out. About two minutes after he left our room, the door suddenly opened and in came a huffing, red-faced Principal Vogt dragging an equally red-faced Tony Puleo by the arm. “Mr. Erger,” she said with icicles dripping from her words, “Is this… this… rapscallion one of yours?”

Now I hadn’t yet come across that word in my spelling lists, but I was sure it wasn’t complimentary. Mr. Erger, the blood having drained from his face, his owl eyes blinking furiously, said weakly, “Yes, Mrs. Vogt. What did he do?”

“What he did, Mr. Erger, is nearly kill me! As I turned to come up the flight of stairs, he came leaping down from the upper landing and crashed into me full-force, knocking me into the wall!”

We all managed to suppress outright laughter and tried to not even smile, especially me and Georgie due to our recent trip to her office. Mr. Erger took Tony’s other arm – I had a vision of Christ on the Cross – and demanded, “Anthony, what do you have to say for yourself?”

He looked up at Mr. Erger, tears in his eyes, and proclaimed, “But-a – Mr. Erg…, she was-a coming up-a the down staircase!”

If the cliché, stunned silence was ever apropos of a situation, this was it. He had her! The Rules! Her Rules! And she had just broken one! What now, Principal Vogt?

She dropped Tony’s arm. Mr. Erger dropped the other one. He was released from the Cross. “Well,” she harrumphed, “although I may have violated a rule, that is still no excuse for outright dangerous behavior. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Erger?”

“Absolutely, ma’am,” he said firmly. “Anthony, I believe an apology to our principal is in order right now.”

In addition to being physically strong, Tony was also headstrong and he hesitated a bit, knowing he was at least partially in the right, but he did the right thing in this obvious no-win situation. He said, “I’m-a sorry, ma’am. I hope-a I didn’t hurt you.”

“I accept your apology and your concern,” she said. She then turned and faced the class drawing herself up to her full height, shoulders back, spine ramrod straight and said.  “Let this be a lesson to all of you boys, and girls also, should you be so foolishly inclined. The practice of grabbing the handrails and seeing how many steps you can leap down the staircase is a dangerous one. To you, and to others, as you evidenced today.”

With that she turned and left the room. That night I thought about that incident at some length. Mrs. Vogt broke her own rule, but left with her authority intact. Knowing she was basically at fault, she took no punitive action at all against Tony Puleo – no written report, no call to his parents, and no suspension from school. She handled it well, magnanimously, to apply a new spelling word I had recently acquired. Another lesson learned from Principal Vogt I would keep in my head for future use.

Graduation Day finally arrived that June, and as I walked across the stage to accept my diploma from Principal Vogt, I immediately noticed as I approached closer, how nice she looked – almost glamorous. Her standard business suit was a bright robin’s-egg blue, and her neckerchief a dazzling, dark blue and silver combination, and I swear the few strands of gray had disappeared from her head. Her usual minimum pale lipstick was redder and a bit thicker, and her cheeks had a bit of rouge on them that I had never noticed before. My unformed, wiseguy, teenage brain made me think of saying, “Be careful on those staircases, Mary!” But I wasn’t that crazy. Instead, my soon-to-be high school self took over and I smiled, shook her hand, and said, “Thanks for everything, Mrs. Vogt.”

She smiled back – one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen cross her face – and said, “You’re very welcome, Joseph. I’m sure you will be a success in this life.”

 

                                                           *  *  *

 

When I was sixteen, at the end of the 1957 baseball season, Dr. Diamond’s Brooklyn Dodgers – and the New York Giants – announced they would leave the city of New York for the golden sunshine of California. His lack of faith in God had been tempered by his faith in the Brooklyn Dodgers, and now that also was taken from him. He was not quite the same after that. Or maybe it was his age creeping up on him, his hair grayer and thinner, stooping over a bit, and mumbling to himself on occasion.

Two years later, shortly after my dad died of cancer, I informed Dr. Diamond we were moving out of the neighborhood, but not that far away. I said, “It’s only about ten miles. I’ll still come back for my appointments.”

He said, “Good, but I’m thinking of retiring soon. Did you hear the National League may be getting us a team in New York soon?”

“To replace your beloved Bums?”

“No vun can ever replace them. Even you – a verdammen Yankee fan – know that.”

“So you’ll sit on your porch, puff away on your pipe, and watch this new team on your color TV as you while away your retirement years?”

“Yes. Can you think of anything better, Mr. Keller?”

I smiled and said, “No, Dr. Diamond. Not at all.”

I never came back for any more appointments because a few days later I received my draft notice and the army dentists took care of me for the next two years. When I was discharged, I stopped by his office on the way home to say hello, but no one answered the bell. And when I looked up his sign was no longer in the second-floor window. I went into Harry’s Hardware and Neil told me that the doctor had retired abut three months ago, and stopped in to say good-bye to him and his dad. He told them he was moving to California to be with his daughter, but that he would never attend a baseball game out there to support the “traitors” who broke his heart when they left town.

In the intervening years I saw the clip of the Thomson “Shot” dozens of times and each time I think of where I was when it happened, and of that Old-World craftsman banging his hand on the table in disgust. As they would say in Yiddish, “He was truly a mensch.” And every time the sweet odor of burning pipe tobacco or peppermint life-savers passes my nose, I smile and remember this good man. I miss his talent, his knowledge, and his wisdom, and yes, I miss his Brooklyn Dodgers, too. But please don’t tell anyone I said that.                                                                                            

And, as Principal Vogt once assured me, I have been successful in this life, in large part thanks to her, and now at six feet, three inches tall, I’m finally taller than Principal Vogt.

Many years later, when I was a high school science teacher, Bel Kaufman wrote a hilarious novel about life – and rules – in the New York City school system titled, Up the Down Staircase. As I read her prose, the memories of P.S. 155 flooded back. Did Mr Erger ever hook up with that teacher who never got his note the day of the “jump?” What happened to Tony Puleo? Was Mrs. Vogt still the principal? Why hadn’t I gone back to visit her once in a while and tell her how much she had meant to me as I made my way through life?

  From the little lessons she gave at our assemblies, to her stand-up example with Tony Puleo where she admitted breaking her own rule, I have never forgotten her. But then, telling her all that wasn’t necessary was it?

 After all, she was a teacher. She already knew.

Simon Bernard Diamond and Mary E. Vogt are long gone from this good earth, but they will forever live in my heart and mind.