Sunday Morning Burning Down

You may have heard about the fire in The Levittown Shopping Center a few weeks back, where Dominico’s Restaurant and Dortoni’s Bakery were threatened. Luckily, the blaze was dealt with quickly and things are back to normal. This reminded me of two other fires in Levittown that didn’t turn out all that well. One was in May of 1970, when St. Bernard’s Church on Hempstead Turnpike was consumed by flame. That same year another Levittown Fire had even a greater impact on me and lots of other kids. That was Abbey Lane Elementary School going up. It was at night and no one injured.

There are three things every kid dreams about: A life-time supply of Bazooka Bubble Gum. To be able to fly. That their school will burn down. One dream coming true is better than nothing, and upon awakening and discovering your school had gone poof was like having a second Christmas. No school for weeks! No school for months! No school till summer! Not even close.
Because this was Levittown, and being Levittown it meant it would take more than a fire to close a school. Like maybe a Tsunami, the Black Plague or Long Island sinking into the ocean. Because within a day and a half every kid attending Abbey Lane was back in some classroom, somewhere, somehow. In the vernacular of the time: “What…a…gyp.” Weather, natural disaster, fire or famine, you went to school. You went to church or synagogue. You went to practice. You walked. You biked. Nothing was ever called off.

By the time my was kid was 7 he had already missed more days of school than I missed K-12. Where I live now an inch of snow or even heavy rain will send parents scrambling to their TVs to watch the dozens of school closures scrolling along the screen. Snow days? We don’t need no stinking snow days!

Every year the Levittown School District would designate a certain amount of days for school closures due to snow. And every year they would never use them. During the blizzards of ’67, and ’78, we walked to school, trudging through mountains of 5 foot high plow-thrown dirty snow. When did this zero-tolerance for giving a kid a day off change? When did this massive shift in how kids even get to and from school change? And even more perplexing–why did this change? My first inkling of this came when I was visiting my brother in the early ‘90s after I had been away from Long Island for several years. Two of his boys went to Abbey Lane and he asked me if I would like to pick them up at school.

“I’d love to,” I said, and headed off down the sidewalk.

“Aren’t you taking your car,” he asked.

“My car? It’s a block and a half away.”

“Take the car,” he said. “That’s how we do it now.”

30 seconds later, driving down Gardiners, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Parents in parked cars lined both sides of the avenue, engines idling. There was no place left to park and I ended up a ways down the road. I picked up the nephews and home we drove. Elapsed time for this excursion: 20 Minutes. Time for these kids to have walked home? 4 minutes, tops.

I had no idea why this was happening. Mind you I am talking about Pre-Columbine America by at least ten years. I have to assume it must have to do with child safety, of which I am not opposed. But this was Levittown, not Beirut, and in my 13 years of going to and from school along with thousands of other kids I can recall no such instance that might merit this kind of parental concern.

The deductive math is astounding. In the ‘90s there were about 9400 kids in the Levittown Union Free School District. And there were 260 days in a school year. That means that there were 488,000 chances a year for something to go drastically wrong involving a walk to and from school. Do the math. It is there. So — can someone tell me how many times something actually did go drastically wrong involving a kid going to and from school? I cannot recall one. Nor can anyone I know.

I think walking or biking to school, picking up your friends along the way, was as much a social character-building and educational experience as school itself. And I think walking and biking back from school (stopping for a Coke or a slice or a Chunky Bar) was a wonderful, though now long-lost experience.

They rebuilt St. Bernard’s Church, twice. And they had Abbey Lane Elementary back in full swing in no time at all. I no longer wish for any school, anywhere, at anytime to burn down. Bazooka Bubble Gum is hard to find. And flying? Hell, who knows?

By Douglas Delaney, All Rights Reserved 2024

Douglas Delaney is a Levittown native and an award-winning author of fiction, non-fiction (Tower Dog: Life Inside the Deadliest Job in Ameria, theater (The Last 10 Miles of Avery J. Coping) and cinema (All Roads Lead Home.)  Doug’s documentary on the Levittown Red Devils (The Devils You Knew) is in the final stages of production and his latest written work regarding life growing up on Long Island is available on Substack.

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