by J. M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
New York, N.Y.
January 20, 2009
FAMILY TALES FROM NYC
NEW YORK -- One great aspect of a job that requires traveling is the opportunity to visit with family and friends who live in the area. I have had the pleasure of meeting with my great-fraternal cousin, "Uncle Teddy", whose real name was Dan Brosnon, from Flushing, N.Y.
Teddy remembered going to Fort Dix, New Jersey on February 13, 1943, to be inducted into the Army after being drafted. Previously the Air Force and Navy rejected him when he tried to enlist, for having poor eyesight.
During the process of being evaluated medically, he failed the hearing test as well as the eye exam when he was unable to hear an officer whisper to him across the room. Teddy asked for a hearing aide so that he could help with the war effort. The doctor took him aside and told him that although he was not physically fit to be a soldier he was needed in Alexandria, Va. He was in demand for his knowledge of Morse code and ham radio, skills he gained by working for Western Union on 34th Street in Manhattan.
Thus began Teddy's work as he made his way up to a top-secret position at the National Security Administration, now known as the NSA, or National Secutity Agency.
When I asked him about the job he's held for three and a half-years, he said that he had sworn an oath of secrecy and couldn't tell me about it until it was declassified. I told him that I thought it was probably declassified by now and that I would be willing to research it, but he said he was not able to tell me where or how to get that information - it was secret!
All I was able to get out of him was that his job had to do with breaking codes and Germany. Imagine that Teddy was there at the beginning of the NSA, an organization that no President has been able to control. The technology that began with Morse code, telegrams made on Telex printers, and ham radios has grown to a very sophisticated data-mining operation that includes the supercomputer called the Black Widow.
The current struggle that civil rights groups have with the NSA covers a wide range of spying activities on U.S. and foreign citizens, including wiretapping, and eavesdropping on their phone conversations and Internet activities. I'm hoping that Obama can regn in the NSA and restore some of the rights Americans lost during the Bush Administration.
Teddy explained that my Aunt Geraldine and Uncle Desmond also worked to support the war effort. My aunt worked for the FBI at the "new" U.S. Court House in New York City. She was working with top-secret information as well and knew J. Edgar Hoover through her work there. Uncle Desmond was trained to be a weatherman at Reading Air Force Base in Pennsylvania.
He learned to speak German and worked with German POWs. This is where he became fond of the German people. Teddy recommended that I see a movie called "The Summer of My German Soldier" to gain an understanding of how such close relationships can develop with an enemy. Desmond was able to get them to open up by giving them cigarettes - no need for water boarding.
My father, John, wanted to help out too, but the day he was to go for his physical he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His eyesight was worse than Teddy's, so he would not have been accepted. However, my father was told his efforts as an aeronautical engineer in the private sector would contribute in a big way. Teddy believed that my father came down with TB because he got run down trying to help his 19 year-old sister take care of a huge rooming house with a coal-burning furnace.
My father worked in Kingston, N.Y., an hour and a half up the Hudson River, during the week. After their mother died of a heart attack at age 42,, he came home on weekends to help.
Dad told me he thought he got TB from tainted, unpasturized milk; it was interesting to learn Teddy's idea of why Dad got ill. My dad was hospitalized for over a year and was one of the few patients at the TB sanitarium that survived after they tried an experimental procedure called pneumothorax. Advanced medications had not yet been developed to cure the illness. Rest and negative ions from country living were pretty much all they had in those days.
This Irish family grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Teddy shared stories about growing up in the tenements. Those tales of survival remind me of the stories of oppression and exploitation I heard from Spanish-speaking migrants I worked with in California, New York and Colorado.
Teddy explained that living in the tenement was like living in a cave, but it was better than life in Ireland, where people starved and Protestants lashed out at the Irish. They were able to escape famine and poverty there for a chance of a better life in New York City.
Each apartment was about 350 square feet. There was no electricity, only gaslight and coal heat, and no ventilation. His mom gave birth at home and placed the children in her laundry basket. There was no running water. Both water and coal were brought up three flights of stairs in buckets. Clotheslines were on the roof.
Teddy's Dad owned one and co-owned two speakeasies during Prohibition on 3rd Avenue in the 50s and 30s. He gave me the addresses of those establishments, so I made a trek to see what is going on there now in those places. One place is an Irish pub called the Pig and Whistle; another is a bagel place, and the third is Duke's Burger Joint.
Always a very resourceful family, his mother opened a boarding house after his father lost his livelihood when drinking became legal. My grandfather (Teddy's dad's brother) was a chauffeur for two wealthy men, one who developed the idea of putting sprocket holes on the sides of Kodak film so that it wouldn;t curl, and the other a well-known American Impressionist painter Childes Hassam. Some of his">http://www.metmuseum.org/special/Hassam">his paintings were at the Met last year.
My grandmother Mary refused to work as a maid or in a factory, and decided to go to school to become a baby nurse at Bellevue Hospital. This was a good move on her part. Her husband died of a heart attack at age 40 and she had three children to care for.
Teddy spoke about the Depression of 1929. He reminded me that it was a financial meltdown very much like the one we are going through right now, but that it was on a much smaller scale. Most people were in the stock market but they did lose jobs and homes, and many banks folded.
He believes that it will take a long time for us to recover this time, but he has faith that the market will self-correct. Teddy spoke of the problems of greed, lack of oversight and how the government wound up bailing out the country that time, too. I'm hopeful the Obama Administration can put some guidelines and restraints in place to prevent this debacle from ever happening again.
Uncle Teddy and my father became Western Union boys to help with family finances during the Depression. They delivered telegrams and packages on their bikes through out New York and occasionally Philadelphia. He remembered that each W.U. office had a huge picture of Andrew Carnegie with the headline, "I too was a Western Union Boy!: This inspired Teddy to try his best to do well as a delivery boy.
His favorite customer was a Croatian scientist by the name of Professor Nicola Tesla. Tesla invented alternating current that allows electricity to travel over long distances.
Tesla lived in the New Yorker Hotel and Teddy often delivered his groceries from a "high class" grocery story on 52nd Street. Teddy referred to Tesla as a "genius nut case" who was "as thin as a stringbean and about 6' tall. Tesla paid him to feed the birds daily for two hours at Bryant Park on 42nd Street and 6th Avenue. The birds would start to flock to him as soon as he came out of the subway at Times Square, a few blocks away.
Teddy admits to only feeding the birds for one hour and going home to have lunch for the second hour. He lived on the first floor of a tenement above the speakeasy at 380 3rd Ave.
Teddy's stories prompted me to go on a tour of the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. Knowledgeable people give tours about the 20 nationalities that filtered through that building over the years. The tour guide said that at one point at the height of immigration 5,000 people filtered through Ellis Island in a day.
The immigrants built the city, but just like today, immigration laws prohibited citizenship to many. Quotas were enacted and many groups were named undesirables. It wasn't until l965 that the old labor laws of the Exclusion Act were abolished, but the spirit of suspicion and exclusion lives on today.
The new immigrants were paid low wages and worked long hours. Sweatshop conditions were the norm in the garment district. Many women died in the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire before labor safety laws were instituted and enforced. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was formed in response to that fire. These issues continue to confront us now on a global scale.
On the way home from my tour of the old speakeasy sites and a detour to the United Nations, I was caught in the middle to a huge traffic jam because of a protest march calling for the end of the bombing and killing in Gaza.
I watched with tears in my eyes as people marched by in the cold with posters of children being carried to "safety" after being maimed in the crossfire. When will the hatred and barbaric practices end? I thought we would be much closer to acting in a civilized manner after all Americans fought for in World War II.