I’ve always had an affinity for the sea. Maybe it’s because I was born in Brooklyn’s Norwegian Hospital that started out caring for indigent immigrants and old sailors. This area, once known as Yellow Hook, is now Bay Ridge. Old timers said it was a short walk to the old Brooklyn docks where the East River flowed into the upper bay through the Narrows and out to an ocean of endless possibilities.
By the time I arrived, the Belt Parkway served as a tourniquet trying to stop the flow of Brooklyn’s residents to the suburbs. We escaped anyway leaving that sinking Atlantis with only tales about egg creams, the Dodgers, and stoop ball as artifacts of its existence. Abandoned in the space age, we took land from farmers who took it from native tribes who disappeared leaving only unpronounceable names to haunt the present. Our parents swapped door-delivered seltzer in pressurized glass bottles for powdered orange juice and called it progress. Pale old men in tank tops drinking cans of Rheingold pounded their fists at the sky blaming rockets for every weather transgression.
We lived on an island but there was no water for miles. Landlocked in split-level ranches with no oars. There was mass incarceration, they called it education. It wasn’t for everyone, not everyone was allowed to use it either. People died. Kennedys, King, X, and the music too. It came back but many who went to Nam didn’t. Books became friends almost by accident. The family library a three shelf four-by-four case was stuck in my room. There were dog-eared books with broken spines that looked like they fell off the Empire State Building. Yet they were readable. Caesar and his legions marched along with Hopalong Cassidy. The life of Napoleon leaned on Lincoln and heroes of the American Revolution. With birthday money, I added Classic Comics Moby Dick, the Three Musketeers, and Zorro.
I read, and reread, them all. They were as much my friends as anyone. I built models of tall ships complete with authentic rigging. A small flotilla to protect our library from marauders.
To expand our knowledge base, the family purchased an encyclopedia using S & H Green Stamps. Sold alphabetically, mom swapped stamps every month for another of the twenty-six sections. My job was to keep the ginormous orange binder in order. I don’t think we ever finished the collection, which is why don’t use a lot of Y and Z research. When a new brick and glass elementary school ate more farmland, I volunteered summers in the startup library tagging and shelving books. I loved the smell opening a new book and flipping its pages.
Eventually, I discovered on the other side of the tracks our little town had a port, a deep-water harbor worthy of long bike trips. On the waterfront, there was an old schooner put on dry land with the center cut out for a diner. An old fisherman sat there all day telling stories. With a quarter he would buy us five Dixie cups of ice cream. We would’ve listened for free. In the fifth grade, I wrote a play about Madagascar pirates. From there it was onto junior naval cadets, Boy Scouts, soccer, high school wrestling, power lifting. A guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material. Join the Army, he said, even with the war still going. Other teachers liked my writing, you should do something with it they told me.
I made my way to the University at Albany and worked on the Albany Student Press. Came home and pulled a George Willard as features writer for the Port Jefferson Record. I was a stringer for the New York Times, wrote for Newsday, the Boston Herald, and various magazines. Other nonfiction appeared in the 2010 Encyclopedia of New York City, and the Gotham Center History Blog. A short story won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. My work was accepted in Lit Mags; Youth Imagination, Turbula, Amarillo Bay, As You Were, Gravel, and Bull Magazine. Got an MS from Syracuse’s Newhouse School. There were visits to Bread Loaf and a scholarship to the Highlights Foundation novel workshop where The Whaler’s Daughter came to fruition. In 2020, my debut nonfiction America’s First Freedom Rider: Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the Early Fight for Civil Rights came out.
Little did I know all those years ago that the oceans used to buoy me would be words my imagination creating the ships on which to navigate them. Yeah, I write, but mostly I remember for those who want to and those no longer here.
Jerry is the author of America’s First Freedom Rider. He has appeared on the AHC program, What History Forgot, is a member of SCBWI, BIO – the Biographers International Organization, and the Historical Novel Society.
Jerry Mikorenda’s YA novel, The Whaler’s Daughter, will be published by Fitzroy Books in the spring of 2021.