Belleville School 10 students surprise native scribe

By Anthony Buccino

Visiting this elementary school after 45 years kindles memories and opens hatch for current batch of students to hear neighborhood history

This was the plan: talk to the fifth and sixth graders at School 10 about going to the school a long time ago when I lived in the neighborhood, then read a poem about growing up, then a poem about the soldiers’ memorials, then talk about the 160 men from Belleville who died while in service. Then I’d close with the three men from the neighborhood who perished in Europe during World War II. Maybe the students would come up with a few questions.

Belleville School Ten, Belleville, N.J.

Belleville School Ten, photo courtesy Belleville Public Library and Information Center.

But the way these things go, my portion of the presentation finished early even though it included the street name changes at Essex Park on Franklin Avenue, and a reference to the fields where we played before the new housing came along.

Heck, I even told them the story about when my dog Butch followed me to school, all the way to the corner of Franklin and Belleville avenues, at lunch time and I had to bring him home and then try to get back to school on time.

One student afterward really, really wanted me to tell him how to get his book in print. He's in 5th Grade!

And that other story about my friend Teen Angel trying to ice skate on the pond at the golf course behind Fairway Avenue. He stepped out on the ice in his regular shoes saying, “See, Tonoose, the ice is strong enough for us to play hockey.”

But before he could say, “put on your skates and come out,” we heard a creaky, cracky sound and veins began to appear in the cloudy skin covering the frigid water below. That’s when Teen Angel looked at me and started towards me as the frozen pond swallowed one foot and as he pulled it free, the other foot got sucked into the cold.

A fifth grader called out that we’d have to rescue him like in that movie.

And I said, “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

And he said it was his favorite film.

We both pictured the scene where George Bailey organizes the other kids to make a human chain to save his brother from drowning in the creek so the brother can later go on to save the men on that troop ship in the Pacific. (BTW, that’s where George loses his hearing and later turns up 4F.)

So, before I told them how Teen Angel made out on the breaking ice of the pond at Forest Hills Country Club, or if I actually got back to the ending of that story at all, I asked the young boy, “Do you know who wrote that movie?”

He didn’t, but that’s okay.

Belleville-born Frances Goodrich wrote the screenplay for that movie with her husband. She was born in Belleville. She and her husband won a Pulitzer Prize for their play The Diary of Anne Frank.

In addition to writing some books and poems about growing up in Belleville and New Jersey, I told them, I’ve also put together a web site called Old Belleville that has information about famous people from town.

That’s when I asked if any of these fifth and sixth graders at my alma mater had a computer. Almost all their hands went up. I tried to explain a computer to children who had never seen an actual typewriter and probably never will.

"You know, it has a tray thing with letters on it..." and they waved their hands rapidly as if I couldn't see them.

"And there's, like, a television screen with it where words and pictures show up?" Ah-ha, they did have computers.

It’s easy to remember my web site about Belleville if you look for it on your computer, I told the 10- and 11-year-olds, “Old, like me, and Belleville, like, well, Belleville.”

The students listened closely when I told them how many young men from Belleville had died while in the service, fighting wars for our freedom. And then I told them about three neighborhood boys who perished in World War II.

Morris Catalano, 28, of Belleville Avenue, Frances C. McEnery of 34 Fairway Avenue, and Joseph Zecca, 19, of Fairway Avenue, all perished in Europe during the war. I also told them about the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tail pilots and a member of that group, Lt. Leonard Willette of Belleville, who perished over Germany.

The neighborhood boys sat in this very auditorium, I told them. Earlier I had explained that as a sixth-grader, I had been on the A/V crew and ran the spotlights and showed the films in what is now the all-purpose room but back then was an elegant single-seat, sloping floor theater.

The neighborhood boys played stickball and football on the same playground as the classes today.

Since I had finished my prepared material, I asked for questions while reminding them that if they ran out of questions, they’d have to go back to class. The children were very interested in the big building across the large lawn. That had been the Soho Isolation Hospital, I explained, where people with tuberculosis, scarlet fever and other infectious diseases went.

That gave me a chance to remind them that where the Essex Park development is was once my playground where we played football, field hockey and homerun derby. Now it’s filled with condos and parking lots.

A few students said they live in the development, so I explained that four of the streets are named after Belleville heroes who did not return from the war: William Hamilton, Clatie Cunningham, Carmine Olivo and Raymond De Luca.

The students were eager to hear more of my stories about the knoll on Smallwood Avenue and Paul Calabrese, the friend I made in fifth grade who invited me to his house to eat lunch until we moved into our home on Carpenter Street. And they were curious about students as crossing guards and also about walking all the way home to eat lunch.

My stories must sound so quaint to these pre-pubescents, as if my friends and I had to chase away the dinosaurs so we could play on these cherished old Belleville streets. It was a pleasure to share my tales with such an enthusiastic audience.

© 2011-2017 by Anthony Buccino.

This essay appears in Greetings From Belleville, New Jersey, Collected Writings by Anthony Buccino

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