Just three weeks before graduating from junior high school in January 1938, I nervously asked my homeroom teacher if I could change a decision I made three months before. My question was a consequence of having been admonished by my Swedish-Irish uncle, Frank Nelson. When I informed him during New Years Eve that I had signed up for the New York School of Printing, Swedish-Irish hell broke loose, “Why do you want to go into the printing business and die of lead poisoning? You always wanted to go to sea!”
I had gone fishing with my Uncle Frank many times. Each trip involved rowing for over a mile from Coney Island Creek, across Gravesend Bay to New York Harbor’s Lower Bay where we would be a quarter of a mile from the arrivals and departures of the most fantastic ocean liners. Many times we saw the REX, BREMEN, ILE de FRANCE, CONTE di SAVOIA, and other such grand liners in addition to numerous freighters and tankers. He knew me better than I knew me.
Miss Katherine Connell was a no-nonsense teacher. I would have accepted her response if she had said, “At this late date you’ve got to be kidding.”
But she was made of better stuff and that is what she replied to me, “Great! You are made of better stuff.”
What I believed to be a beyond-reach ambition became her top priority. When I reported back to my homeroom in the afternoon, she had already identified the N.Y. State Merchant Marine Academy as the best place for me. In no uncertain terms I was told to go that very evening to Fort Schuyler in The Bronx in order to pick up a copy of the booklet that explained the Academy’s entrance requirements. She insisted that there was no time to wait for a mailed copy.
Twenty-one miles by subway, bus, and on foot during a bitter-cold windy January evening was an awesome challenge. Street-wise Joe (Joe Mack) D’Alessio, my father’s cousin and so named because he drove a Mack truck to and from the docks, came by at the right moment. He accompanied me to Fort Schuyler where I learned that a high school diploma was required.
Nothing daunted Miss Connell when I gave her the booklet the next morning. She seemed to be oblivious to my disappointment about having to go to high school, and to my shock when she had me withdrawn from a morning class that very same day.
Miss Connell had arranged an appointment that very afternoon at Brooklyn Technical High School. I almost fainted. Tech was notoriously hard to get into. Every six months, only a small quota from each of New York City’s many schools was permitted to take the competitive entrance examination. Two thousand were admitted each year. Only two thirds were expected to graduate.
Applicants had taken the exam months before and those who were successful had already received their acceptance notices. Miss Connell had arranged for me to be given a special examination. She was either a very persuasive talker or had powerful political connections. I felt like a lamb being prepared for slaughter when I entered through one of Tech’s huge bronze doors.
Tech was then the pride of New York City’s Department of Education. Its one-year-old building was awesome; it had marble hallways, elevators, and an auditorium that accommodated the six-thousand student body in two shifts. Tech also had its own radio station with a 300-foot high antenna, and fabulous shops that introduced high school students to practical aspects of engineering. Every graduate was expected to go to an engineering college.
Per Miss Connell’s instructions, I had to personally deliver her sealed letter to the Vice Principal.
The Vice Principal’s office was located off one of the school’s marble floor hallways. The walls consisted of four-foot-high wainscoting with clear glass panes above. He was standing and could see as I approached that I was within a whisker of running for dear life. He towered over me as he read Miss Connell’s letter. Then he said, just as if he drew a bead between my eyes, “I won’t send you back to Miss Connell without saying, ‘We gave you a chance.'”
I wasn’t sure about what he meant, but I felt I had been shot down and it was a relief to think that now maybe Miss Connell would give up.
The Vice Principal directed me into the conference room alongside his office and gave me a copy of the ten-part entrance examination that was in the form of a booklet. He also gave me a legal-size tablet on which to write my responses. He instructed his secretary to watch from her office to see that no one communicated with me and that he would return in three hours.
I believed that a disaster was in the making. As I reached to turn the cover page I was thinking about what I could say to Miss Connell. Her last instruction to me was, “Don’t go home from Tech. I will be waiting here no matter what time you finish.”
My numbness abated a bit when I realized that the first part of the exam was a math problem.
I quickly turned to the second part and found another math problem. Rapidly, I thumbed through the remainder. What luck! The entire exam was made up of math problems; it was unbelievable!
I proceeded very deliberately and solved the ten problems in a bit over thirty minutes. I put aside what I had written and started to redo the exam on clean sheets of paper. When the Vice Principal returned exactly three hours later, I had completed the exam six times with no inconsistencies. He picked up one set, went through it carefully, and, while stealing a glance at my other work and barely raising an eyebrow, said, “You can tell Miss Connell that we’ll accept you.”
Only thirty-three hours had elapsed since I told her that I wanted to go to sea.
After graduating from Tech I went to the newly created U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for a wartime course that included being at sea for almost all of 1942.
In September of 1943, as an Ensign on active duty in the U.S. Navy, I took a special date to lunch at the Officer’s Club in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Miss Connell was wearing her Red Cross, Gray Lady driver’s uniform. A tiki was pinned to her lapel. I had sent it the year before from Wellington, New Zealand; it was very appropriate.
A tiki is a Polynesian image of a supernatural power!
Copyright Â© 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo