My Father’s American Dream
In this episode, Dan Holohan shares stories about growing up on Long Island, NY in the 1950s, the bungalow his dad built, and hydronic heating.
Lake Ronkonkoma. How's that for a Native American name? Sort of rolls off your tongue, doesn't it?
To get my mother, my big brother and me out of Manhattan and into the country for a while, my father would drive the sixty or so miles from Manhattan to Lake Ronkonkoma, which used to be quite lovely. Soft-sand beaches ringed the lake, many with pavilions that stretched out over the water on pilings. You could swim out to a wooden float if you were old enough. Or you could climb the stairs on the tall slides that had hand pumps at their tops to take the blaze off the summer steel. Each stretched out into the deeper water but not so deep that kids couldn’t handle it on their own. We'd climb, pump, slide, and shriek our way down into the lake, which was the temperature of bath water on a July afternoon. We'd be out there on our own. Hundreds of us. Most of our parents sat up top in the shade of the pavilions, drinking cold beer and watching us from wooden picnic tables. It was 1953.
Each summer, we would spend a week at Quick's Motel, an old-school place across the street from the lake. Mrs. Quick kept goats and a dog named Flea. The goats were scary. Flea, not at so much. There was no TV. There was only summer. And summer seemed to go on forever.
One day, my father left us all with Mrs. Quick’s and went out for a drive. When he returned, he told us that he had just bought a plot of land with the shell of a bungalow on it. It cost $2,500, which seemed a fortune, but he had overtime because the plumbing supply business was booming with business then and a good man could always get overtime.
He told my mother that he had put $25 down to hold it and that it would all work out. She would see. What mattered most was that he and his bride were now homeowners, which was his American dream. All the while he was at war in the Pacific, he dreamed of having a place in the country. And now the dream was coming true. And he was going to finish that bungalow for us. He was somewhat handy and he could learn what he needed to learn. The supply house was filled with clever people who knew how to build things. He’d ask for advice.
Now, this is how my father got what he needed to finish our bungalow. The supply house where he worked was on East 79th Street in Manhattan, directly across the street the apartment building where we lived. He was the shipping clerk, and in those years after World War II, there was so much building going on. My father ran a couple dozen trucks that made deliveries all over the city and out onto Long Island. He told each of his drivers that when they made a delivery, they should ask the foreman for one 2 X 4 and one brick. "People will help you out if you ask for just a little," he told me. "And a little adds up to a lot after a while."
On Friday, one truck always made a run "Out East" to deliver to the tract housing that was sprouting like weeds on Long Island. My father would load his free wood and bricks onto that truck and his driver would dump that load on his lot out there near Lake Ronkonkoma. It took a while, but he finished that tiny house. It wasn’t fancy but that house is still there today, nearly 70 years later.
At first, we had no indoor plumbing or running water. He dug a hole and built an outhouse for us. He had a shallow well dug and connected a hand pump to that. He showed me how to work it. I can still hear the sound it made. Then he built an eight-foot high frame out of his free wood, mounted a steel drum on top of the frame, painted it black, and screwed a chain-operated shower head into its bottom. He told us that this is how he and the other soldiers had showered in the Philippines.
Each morning, he would pump buckets of water from the well, climb the ladder, and dump the water into the steel drum. I asked when I would be old enough to climb the ladder. He’d laugh and say, “Soon enough, kid. Soon enough.”
By evening, that water was almost too hot to bear, and that was how we showered after our long days at the beach, and that was how I learned about solar thermal. I was four years old that summer. I wanted to be like my father.
That same summer, Hurricane Carol visited Long Island and dropped parts of a huge oak tree on the bungalow. Incredibly, it didn’t damage the tiny house. Its limbs just embraced the house like a gigantic green hand. I thought this was the best thing in the world. We went into the house and looked out the windows. It was like being inside a treehouse. It was magical.
My father and the neighbors got together and cut up the tree. They didn't have any power tools. They did it all by hand. They saved the wood and burned it during the summers to come. There was beer involved in that, of course, and I remember helping him bury all the steel cans afterwards. I’d ask why we buried the beer cans and he said it was so we could grow more beer. I believed him of course, and I watched the ground carefully each day, waiting for the metal sprouts to arrive.
He was grand with his tall tales, my father.
He added an electric pump to the well in 1956 and piped cold water into the house. No more hand-pumping for him, and with the new water heater, our days of solar-thermal showers were over. He got some Slant/Fin baseboard and a bronze-body, B&G Series 100 circulator from the supply house, and ran a heating loop from the water heater. This did a nice job of keeping the place cozy during the fall and the spring.
It dawns on me now that he might have been setting us all up for a good dose of Legionnaires' disease with that open system he had built. The domestic water that ran through the baseboard stagnated all summer long, but no one knew of Legionnaires’ disease back then.
In 1957, he decided to get us out of Manhattan for good. Robert Moses was shoving the Long Island Expressway out onto Long Island, and tract housing was sprouting all along its way. Each weekend, he and my mother would pile us into the old Buick and drive out to find a house they could afford. He was going to become a commuter.
We kept moving eastward from exit to exit on the Long Island Expressway as it advanced in its construction. When we got to the town of Hicksville, they found a house that they could afford. He had sold the bungalow in Lake Ronkonkoma to get the down payment on the Hicksville house.
It was sad to lose Ronkonkoma, but getting out of the small Manhattan apartment once and for all was worth it. We were going to be suburbanites, and the neighborhood was teaming with kids our age.
Hicksville, I’ll admit, is a funny name for a town. Valentine Hicks had founded the place, along with the Long Island Railroad. It wasn't really "hickey," though, even though the roads were made of tar and covered with pebbles. There were no sidewalks or curbs then. During the summers, all the kids would pry the tar from the road in front of our houses with sticks and smear it onto our PF Flyers. Then we'd go walk inside our houses and get in trouble with our moms.
Some of the kids even ate the tar. They said it tasted like licorice, but I never tried that.
Oh, and to keep down the dust on the tar roads, the town would send a truck rattling through the neighborhood every week to dribble oil onto the streets. What today would be an environmental disaster, was then simply road maintenance. We also tracked the oil into our houses.
It was 1957 and we were like feral cats.
Oh, and asbestos was still the Miracle Mineral, mercury was in our toys. and so was lead.
The Hicksville house had a basement and that's where the boiler was. I couldn’t get enough of that boiler. I loved the way it growled. A loop of copper wrapped around the basement ceiling and branches fed the upstairs steel convectors though diverter tees.
My father explained all of this to me. “The water goes this way and that way. Up and down. Got it?” he said.
“Good,” he said. “You’re a smart kid.”
And that was my introduction to hydronic heating. The water goes this way and that way. Got it, Dad.
I became acquainted with the Bell & Gossett Series 100 circulator when I was seven years old. During my rep days I would sell a lot of those circulators, but the winter of my seventh year had me sticking pencils into the spinning spring coupler. I loved the sound it made. It sounded like the Topps baseball cards I would clothespin in front of my bicycle spokes. RRRRRRRR! I also loved the way it chewed up the pencil.
We had oil heat (everyone did) and the service was free as long as we were buying the oil. The serviceman replaced a lot of couplers in our house and probably had bad thoughts about that big red circulator. The couplers don’t last long. My apologies, Bell & Gossett.
I also loved (but didn't understand) the boiler's barometric damper. I thought it was a cool place to drop my father's plastic-handled tools, for which I now offer a much-overdue apology to the servicemen who showed up to retrieve them. But like that old boiler, those servicemen are probably no longer in service either.
Oh, and I also loved to pop the relief valve. It made such a cool sound.
The other neat thing about growing up in Hicksville (besides going to school with Billy Joel) was that everyone we knew had hydronic heat. I don't think I ever went into a house with a furnace. It was boilers all the way, and mainly steel convectors up in the rooms. Baseboard followed as people renovated their houses and added zones.
I thought everyone in the world had hydronic heat. I was wrong about that, but I still think we were the luckiest people in the world. We were all dreamers back then. I probably should have kept my hands in my pockets, though. But then, I wouldn’t have this Dead Men tale to tell you, would I?
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