“Surviving Childhood in Little Falls” by Cynthia Holick Foley
A Memoir and Interview with Jan P. Holick Sr
When asked if I had any siblings, I often quipped, “My brother and I were only children.” While my first decade was spent in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s, his was spent just prior and during World War II. Recently my big brother, Jan Holick Sr., (born 1935, and graduated from Little Falls High School 1953,) sat down with me, (born 1951, and graduated 1969,) and shared his memories of a time I never knew except in history books. He was kind enough to open a window to his past, and this article invites you to share that view.
Jan Holick taken at Caroga Lake Photo Booth.
Until he was eight, Jan lived on Third Street, third house from the tracks, across from the Polish Community Hall, in the upstairs apartment with our parents, Paul and Irene Holick(Holcik) Jr., and maternal grandparents, John and Sadie Zeski, both Polish immigrants. Our parents and grandparents all had jobs. Gramma and Djai Djai (Polish for grandfather) in Gilberts and Snyders respectively, Mom in Luries, and Dad at Remington Arms. Recalling life close to the tracks, Jan laughed, “When a train went by the house shook!” He continued, “In those days, mail was delivered by the trains. The incoming mail pouch was thrown off at the station and the outgoing mailbag, which hung from a hook, was picked up by a hook on the train. Express trains would roar through and blow their whistles to make sure the tracks were clear. That was ‘fun’ hearing the train whistle in the middle of the night.”
Most of his friends went to Church St. School, where he attended, walking a mile uphill, “It was easier coming home, especially in the wintertime when we slid downhill all the way.” They played in his backyard before the arterial was built.
When he was six or seven, he recalled a routine with Djai Djai. “Our grandfather liked to have a beer after work. He’d get home from Snyder’s, shave, shower, and hand me a quarter. I’d walk directly across the street to what was then the Polish Hall. The bartenders all knew who I was because this happened three to four times a week. I’d get a pitcher of beer and a glass of soda all for a quarter.” After delivering them, they both enjoyed their beverages.
Likewise at that age, our family, like many in town, took in “Fresh Air” children from inner New York City for a week in the summer as part of a voluntary community wide effort to improve their lives by getting them out of the City. “These children were brought in by bus, about 20-30 children met by the same number of families. I don’t remember who the primary sponsor was.” Children were matched best as possible to the ages of the children in the host families so there was some commonality. Most had never been out of the City; some never left their block. Using his A ration card for gas, Dad, “piled them in the car and took them out to see a real farm. They’d never seen grass or hay or a cow before. They were amazed. Mom bought them clothes, so they always went home with more. She and Gramma fed them lots of good food, too.”
In 1943, when he was eight, the family moved to 86 N. William Street where he found plenty of playmates on the block. “There were no kids my age on Third Street. I got up to William St. and there was one in every house.” They played in the acres of woods up the hill, loved the waterfall, and looked for Little Falls (NOT Herkimer) diamonds. “I still have a few keepers of those.” He roamed the grounds of Burrell’s Mansion from end to end, enjoying views of the city and hiking to where the golf course is now.
In the winter, sledding was a big activity. “We had a big toboggan. We’d load anywhere from four to six kids on it and go from the top of the hill, stopping at the first tree we hit. Unless you had a run set up, turning a corner in a toboggan is a big deal. I’d ride in front because I could steer it a little with my feet, but there’s only so much you can do with a toboggan. It goes downhill in a hurry. Going back up the hill was the hard part.”
Our discussion turned to the War. Jan was four when Hitler attacked Poland and doesn’t remember hearing about that. However, when he was six, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and “We heard about it on the big Philco radio in the front room. We all gathered around and listened to our leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, talk about the Day of Infamy. The Allies were at war in Europe and now democracy was under attack on a different front.”
Our Uncle Max, (Matthew Zeski) served in the war as a Captain in the Field Artillery after attending Officers Candidate School and was in the Philippines when the War ended. “He was not part of the slaughter at Corregidor and Bataan. He brought me back a machete.” Jan’s oldest son, Jay, has the machete now. The family displayed a Blue Star flag in the window. “Virtually every house had a flag in the window. I can’t remember any Gold Stars, but I’m sure there must have been some.” Flags were displayed on the street side so everyone walking by would see them.
The family regularly listened to FDR’s fireside chats. “The radio was the main source of war news. The second was Movietone News. At the Rialto theater when you went to one of the westerns they specialized in, if you had a double header, it was between the movies. If not, it preceded the movie that was playing that day.”
Asked how the family felt about FDR, Jan replied, “They loved him. Everyone loved him. He was everybody’s grandfather and father. He led us out of the Great Depression and through most of the war until he died. Harry S Truman took over and ended the war in the Pacific in dramatic fashion. You’ve probably seen photos, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everybody applauded.”
Discussion turned to Dad’s role in the War. “Dad worked at Remington Arms making the weapons of war. Consequently, the Selective Service Board, otherwise known as the Draft Board, decided that was a better place for him. After signing up, part of the swearing in was allowing the Board to call you up and say, ‘You’re going in the Army, you’re going in the Navy.’ In Dad’s case, they said, ‘You’re going to continue to make guns.’ One of the weapons he worked on was a tank gun cannister that was a lot like a shotgun shell only a diameter of say three or four inches that fit into the main cannon of the tank. An antipersonnel weapon, the results would be like shooting a shotgun into a covey of quail. The aside on that was he’d bring home some of the metal balls that went into that shell. As a result, I became the marble king of William St.” While I never became a marble queen, I remember those “steelies,” never knowing what they really were.
“Dad got an A ration card which was pasted on the inside of the car windshield like registration is now. It was for gas only, not food, which was also rationed, to enable him to commute to and from Ilion for work. Virtually everything was rationed, butter, sugar, everything.”
Rationing was not a problem at the top of William Street. Most people in town didn’t keep chickens or pigs, but, “with the bucolic setting, we built a chicken coop attached to the garage and raised chickens. Underneath the chickens, we raised pigs.” The adults didn’t have any problem slaughtering the chickens, “but when it came to the pigs, it was local taxidermist, Jim Styers’ job. I was the primary care giver for the chickens who all had names, and it wasn’t fun to see your friends go to the slaughterhouse.” Though unhappy, he ate his “friends” but not the two big roosters. “My Rhode Island Red was named Toughie and Dad’s Plymouth Rock was named Spike. Those two would go at it.” Chicken is still not his favorite dish.
Dad’s uncle who had a vegetable farm in Indian Castle, “would drive into town on a Saturday morning and bring us veggies. We’d give him some eggs. I remember he had a peg leg, and I marveled at how he maneuvered with that peg.”
Dad was an Air Raid Warden responsible for maintaining the blackout laws. “It was a huge concern that the Germans would bomb upstate New York, and the only navigational aids they’d have would be lights. They’d bomb lights shining from the ground. A cluster of lights meant a city.” Hence, all cities had blackout laws. “Everyone had a blackout curtain in their house. You’d pull the shades, put the blackout curtain over that so no light would peek out.” Streetlights were turned off as well. “I would go out with him on his rounds which was an appointed number of blocks in the neighborhood. If we saw any light shining out, we’d knock on the door. Never once were we given any argument about shutting down the light source.” Finding a violation, “was a rare occasion because everybody was pretty careful. There was plenty passing of the word.” No signal was given for lights out, only darkness, “People became trained.” Describing his feelings about that experience, Jan said, “I was excited. We were doing our own little part to protect our turf. Anything you could do to help the war effort made any kid happy. A common prayer in those days was God bless everyone but the Germans and the Japs.”
At home, other activities to support the war included conserving as much as possible due to rationing, saving bacon grease in a can in the kitchen, saving cans and foil from gum wrappers, rubber bands, etc. which were brought to a drop off place, similar to recycling, but to a different end. “Gramma had a Victory garden, having plenty of fertilizer available,” he laughed. “She had a green thumb and grew beautiful flowers but conceded to growing vegetables during the war.” She canned those vegetables.
At school, “All the kids would buy war bond stamps. You had a booklet, and if you had ten cents, which was one stamp, you bought it and put it in the booklet. Fill up the book, and you get a bond which was $18.75. So, in my case, I’d get some money from Mom and Dad once a week and buy the stamps. War bonds were intended to give the government money to support the protection of democracy until the war was over. When the war was over, you could redeem them at any bank. Face value on an $18.75 bond was $25.00.”
Besides feeding the chickens, another of my brother’s chores was tending to the coal furnace twice a day, before school in the morning and bed at night. “We had a coal bin in the cellar. A coal truck would pull up and dump the coal down the chute to the bin. When you had to shovel in the coal, you also had to shovel out the ash. Burning coal produced a lot of ash” which was also put on the garden.
Jan was nine on VE Day, ten on VJ Day. “The news didn’t get to us until about 6 o’clock at night via the radio. The VE Day celebration was especially poignant because a lot of the people in Little Falls were Eastern European. Many still had families there. Little Falls was an ethnic melting pot, Polish, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Irish, Italian. People came out on the street and celebrated. Church bells rang out. On VJ Day it was absolute joy and relief that the War was finally over, and President Truman had the gumption to do what he did. Truman was one of my heroes, a commonsense guy. Rode the train!”
As I close this window to the past, I’ll share a story from the present Jan told regarding how the War shaped him. “I was at the cemetery visiting Jean [his wife]. As I was talking to her, a trumpet played Taps. Instinctively, I stood up and saluted. Others just looked at me. The War gave me an intense sense of patriotism that has stayed with me. You’ll always find a flag flying in my front yard.”
One sees many flags of all kinds flying these days, and hears much talk of patriotism, but I doubt many motives are as pure as those of my big brother.