Before the summer totally gets away, I need to write about one of my loveliest outings of recent months – a visit to a historic cemetery I had not known existed.
I went with a few history-minded friends from Jamaica High School, who are forever bonded to central Queens, where we were raised.
The region goes back to Dutch and English settlers in the 17th Century, and, of course, the Jameco tribe of Native Americans, who named themselves after the Algonquin word for beavers, who were here first.
We acquired our educations and lifelong friends at Jamaica High without ever knowing about Prospect Cemetery, on Beaver Road, now surrounded by York College in South Jamaica.
The private cemetery is one of the oldest in New York City for English settlers.
Our tour was conducted by Catherine Ludlam, who is related to other old Long Island families; (the name is sometimes spelled "Ludlum," but the original, from Matlock, Derby, England, is spelled "Ludlam.")
Either way, Ludlam, a retired computer consultant, has helped revive the cemetery from the neglect and vandalism over the decades.
How did old Jamaica types, now scattered in our worldwide diaspora, hear about Prospect Cemetery? The credit goes to my good friend Michael Schwab, who went to Jamaica half a decade later than I did, and is now a retired judge from the apple-and-cherry paradise of Yakima, Wash., living in Seattle.
Michael and I became pals through his veneration of Joe Austin, the grand mentor to generations of basketball and baseball players at the St. Monica’s Parish. (Michael is as Jewish as the prune danish he craves on his regular homecomings to Queens.)
Michael and his lovely wife Jane, of blessed memory, would seek out historic spots on visits to Queens.
Across the street from where St. Monica’s (with its basement basketball court, where a player named Cuomo practiced running his defender into murderous tile pillars at center court) used to be, is the historic cemetery. Who knew?
Michael Schwab became a fan of the cemetery, via Cate Ludlam, and asked me to round up a small group of Jamaica pals when he was in Queens a few weeks ago.
So I rounded up history buffs -- West Side Shelley and East Side Jean and Trumpland Michael and Westchester Wally and my wife, the non-Jamaican.
Cate took us first to a family chapel, built for three Ludlam sisters. During the lawless 60s and 70s, vandals delighted in shooting out the stained-glass windows, now replaced since the site was secured by the growth of York College.
Next, we walked through thick grass (Eco-Lawn, a brand that needs no mowing) and Cate pointed out tombstones that told of life from one generation to the next -- no historical footnotes or explanations, just names and dates.
The earliest recognizable tombstone was: for Mary Fitch: (“Died: Jan. -- (?) 1709. Age 17 years.”)
Nearby in the Hariman family section was the tombstone for “Jane Lyons, a colored woman, who upwards of 65 years was a faithful and devoted domestic in the family of James Hariman, Sr. of this village, died Dec. 19, 1858. Age 75 years.”
And not far away was the tombstone for James Henry Hackett, a noted Shakespearean actor who in 1863 impressed a resident of Washington, D.C., who wrote a fan letter signed “A. Lincoln.”
As we trekked around the cemetery, Cate told us about her earlier explorations – the homeless man, living in the underbrush, who shocked her, and the student dig for obscured markers that ended prematurely with the discovery of the skeleton of a child – identity and cause of death, unknown.
Cate mentioned the sad discovery to a relative, a writer named Cornelia Read, who subsequently included Cate in a novel called “Invisible Boy.”
Nearby, we saw the weathered tombstone of Increase Carpenter -- a stunning flashback for me to the late 40s, when my class at P.S. 35 in Hollis used to take a walk to the site of the farm of Increase Carpenter, the quartermaster in the upstart militia.
This farm was where Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull was captured while ferrying cattle eastward to keep them out of the hands of the British. When Woodhull refused to say "God save the king," a British soldier whacked him in the arm with a sword, and the general died of the wound.
Cate Ludlam knows the details. She is a member of the Increase Carpenter chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
My friends are proud of our roots in a landmark public school. (The city, in all its wisdom, lost control of the school and terminated it a few years back.)
In our ways, we luxuriated in being in downtown Jamaica, where the el used to run, where Gertz used to be, just south of the main line of the Long Island Rail Road, still rumbling.
After the tour, we repaired to a terrific Portuguese restaurant -- A Churrasqueira -- a block from the modernized Jamaica station -- a perfect ending to the day.
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I have barely touched the surface of Prospect Cemetery. For further information, here are a few links:
Donations to maintain the cemetery may be made to: PCA ℅ Cate Ludlam, PO Box 553, Oyster Bay, NY 11771
As we write post-mortems of this failed presidency, may I ask a favor of everybody, including media people I admire?
Please, in trying to explain the roots of this dangerously flawed man, stop referring to him as being from an “outer borough.”
Also, please, stop the automatic segue into Archie Bunker and the grand old TV show, “All In The Family,” as if everybody in the borough of Queens sat around on a front step in a sleeveless undershirt and reminisced about the good old days of Herbert Hoover (or George Wallace, or Jefferson Davis, or Adolf Hitler.)
As it happens, I grew up half a mile from the Trumps, although blessedly unaware of them for a long time. Friends of mine knew Fred Trump, his older brother, at PS 131, and said he was a lovely guy, but with learning disabilities. I met him a few times in the late ‘70s, and totally agree.
That neighborhood is not exactly Bunkeresque. It is Jamaica Estates, an enclave of large homes, many of them on glacial hills just north of Hillside Avenue.
When I was a kid, my parents would pack all five kids in the family sedan and drive around Jamaica Estates looking at the lavish Christmas decorations.
My parents were Newspaper Guild activists, real lefties from the ‘30s. After the War, they helped form a discussion group, expressly 50 per cent black, 50 per cent white – idealistic bootstrappers from Queens, who talked about books and politics and life, sometimes in our living room. My parents loved Eleanor and Franklin, and praised Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson.
In later years, my parents voted at the same polling station as that lovely couple that had moved into Holliswood, Mario and Matilda Cuomo. Not exactly Archie Bunker country.
I just looked it up: In milestone elections, Queens voted decisively for John F. Kennedy in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008 – and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That’s right. The people who, theoretically knew their home boy best voted for Clinton, 75.4% to 21.8%.
Queens has been consistent politically, even with all the changes. In the early 50’s, Jewish families were moving out from Brooklyn and the Bronx -- my new friends, settling into Tudor homes, reminisced about stickball games and six-story apartments in their old neighborhoods. There were few, or no, traces of Muslim or African-American or Asian families, part of the picture today.
It was an enclave, but the nasty middle Trump brother missed it -- sent to private school in Kew Gardens (until he was caught packing a knife, and was shipped to boarding school, where goodness knows what transpired.)
Most kids in Jamaica Estates went to Jamaica High – for me, a one-mile walk, via Henley Road, near the future TrumpHaus.
Jamaica High was a bastion of academics but a mixed bag for equality. My friend Al Gibson recalls having to badger the “counselor” so he could take academic classes. (PS: He has advanced college degrees and a good career.)
The nasty Trump boy missed this part of growing up: side-by-side with blacks. I served detentions with a black guy (college-bound) after we both thought it was fun to pester a young sub teacher. I shoved back at a black guy who constantly backed into me at the “good” basket in gym class. I also tried to guard Teddy Jackson, with that great first step, later a star at Hofstra – and still my lunch pal.
Our yearbook advisor, Irma Rhodes (who rescued me in English class), held soirées for her staff at her home a few blocks from TrumpHaus; afterward I took the Q-17 bus with a young African-American woman, an art editor on the yearbook. All of this was superficial, of course, but part of the de-mythicizing of race.
But the most integrated part of Jamaica was the choir/chorus of Jean Gollobin (one of the great leaders I have ever encountered in any discipline) who always had mature helpers like Carole Gardner, also a class officer.
Five guys (P.A.L. basketball players from the 103rd Precinct) formed that early doo-wop group, The Cleftones, and would harmonize out in the hall, as if singing under the proverbial streetlamp.
One of my classmates, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, has been a major force in the feminist movement; another, Sid Davidoff, has been a stalwart of Democratic politics; a third, Herb London, has been a conservative candidate. We all gained from the crowded halls and classrooms of a thriving public school. (The city gave up on Jamaica High a few years ago. Some of us keep thinking it will come back.)
Life in the Jamaica area was and remains complex. The middle son of a builder was soon conniving with his father to exclude minorities from their buildings. He’d be doing it today, if he could get away with it. But please don’t tag all of us from Jamaica with the Bunker label.
Harold Grundy has visited 66 countries and 49 states. He likes to tell people about the construction he supervised in top-security places like Greenland and northern Maine and Guantanamo Bay.
He also ducked bullets and bombs in Europe and Asia while delivering goods during World War Two.
Whenever he and Barbara came home to Bath, Maine, they updated the pins on the map – which became the summary of his grand life, soon to reach 95 years.
Barbara has been gone for a few years, and recently Harold – my wife’s uncle – began to need more care. He was in the right place – a cottage on the grounds of The Plant Home, alongside the Kennebec River, a 100-year-old retirement home, beautiful and comfortable, idealistically designated for people from the region.
Harold held on by himself as long as he could, but when he began to need more care he was moved to the main house. The staff was fussing over him – everybody fusses over him – but he was feeling the huge change, even with a private room overlooking the river he dredged in 1940.
How to deal with the tremendous sense of upheaval in his life? Harold is surrounded by good friends from Bath, a real town with thriving shipbuilding and generations of people with long memories and loyalties.
Ace, his faithful surrogate son, has been visiting from Arizona. Cookie, a loving surrogate daughter and friend of Barbara’s, has been driving up from Connecticut. Ann, a retired nurse, has been volunteering her expertise. And Martha has been offering rides to doctors. Eric takes him out for breakfast. Dr. Paul, a nephew, has popped in, from his peripatetic life. This is the essence of community. We should all be so lucky.
Still, understandably, Harold was having trouble adjusting. Ace and Cookie agreed that he needed more personal touches in his new room, but he was divesting traces of his life, including the map, with all the blue and green and red thumb tacks.
The other day, my wife and I dropped in to meet the director of the Plant Home -- Kristi Hyde, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, who served several active nursing tours overseas. This was our first meeting.
Ms. Hyde invited us to sit at her desk. She sat squarely and leaned forward and looked my wife in the eye and asked how she could help.
I had a flashback to three years in ROTC in college, when we were taught the fundamentals of leadership. (The military knows how to teach responsibility – thank goodness, I say.)
Marianne said: “Harold has this map in the cottage…”
Ms. Hyde smiled and said (as I recall), “We need to get that over here.”
Twenty-four hours later, that large map (with the wooden frame that Harold, a master carpenter, had built) was placed on a wall outside the home’s activities room, where people pass all day.
We took him downstairs to show him, and told him Ace and Cookie and Kristi Hyde had wanted that map to be with him.
Harold smiled – and pointed – and began telling us stories about a few of his postings – Jamaica, Nigeria, Three Mile Island, and the perilous missions during World War Two. We stayed 15 minutes. There are always new stories.
We’re back home now, and Harold is reportedly adjusting to his room squarely facing the river he helped dredge in 1940.
He often tells how he ferried explosives into the middle of the river to help the blasters. His life keeps rolling, alongside the Kennebec.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.