Two People I Owe

Walter and Kathy Hemerly were another married couple that worked with my Mom and Dad, as members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Chorus. They were a fixture of my life, probably from the day that I was born, and there are several things in my life that I owe directly to them.

Number one is Ocean City. Walter was from Philadelphia, and his family owned a summer house on the 3200 block of Asbury Avenue in Ocean City. Back in the early 50s, the Met’s season was short, and the members of the chorus collected New York State Unemployment during the summer. In the summer of 1955 when I was five years old, they finally convinced my Mom and Dad to come down to Ocean City. We stayed in a guest house right next door to Walter’s family summer house, and for the next 5 years, Ocean City was where we spent our summers. Turn the clock ahead to the first year Susie and I were married, and we once again visited Ocean City, and it seemed remarkably the same as it had when I was a kid. Jump ahead to the Summer of 1983, and our first stay in Ocean City as a family with 7 month old William Ryan, and the die was cast. Since that first visit with Billy, for each of the 37 following summers, we have spent part of or all summer in Ocean City, since 2005 in our own house, and since 2017, we’ve called it home! Thanks Kathy and Walter!

The second thing I owe them is my first car!

It was a 1955 Chevrolet BelAir 2 door sedan, in green on green. It wasn’t the car pictured, but it was exactly like this one. It had a straight six cylinder engine, a three speed manual column shift transmission (referred to as 3 on the tree), non-power brakes, non-power steering, an AM radio, white wall tires, and full wheel covers, and that was it! It cost me $50 when I bought it in the spring of 1967, but I had to drive it home from their apartment in Westchester County. I had learned to drive on my folk’s new ’66 Ford Galaxie with a V/8 engine, automatic transmission and power steering, so this was going to be a big change for me. I had never driven a stick shift, but I had watched a couple of folks drive one, and was sure I was prepared. I guess I could have done more research, but I was 17 and knew all!

So the day we are going to pick it up, we take the train up to Westchester, meet Walter and Kathy in their apartment building’s parking lot, give them the $50, put my new license plates on the car, and off we go. Okay…it’s harder to drive a stick shift than it looks….a lot harder! I drive around their neighborhood a bit to get a feeling for the car. I stall the engine multiple times, shift into the wrong gear, and have lots of trouble pulling away from stop lights. A lot of my issues had to do with that third pedal…the clutch pedal. See, my big issue was that I now had to drive the car from Westchester County to where we lived in Queens County. Westchester is part of the mainland of the United States, Queens is part of Long Island, an island off the coast of the United States. Island equals bridge, and bridge equals toll booth. You see my problem?

I cautiously get on the highway, and I’m doing fine as long as I don’t have to stop, but here comes the Whitestone Bridge to Queens and it’s toll bridge. Luckily there wasn’t a lot of traffic and I’m able to pick a toll booth with no line. I down shift and slow down, but I’m afraid to stop for fear of stalling and not being able to start the car again, so I toss the 35 cents toll (it was a long time ago) at the toll taker, and “accelerate” away from the booth and onto the bridge! Somehow, I made it home to Jackson Heights, parked the car (not easy to ease a standard transmission into backwards movement either), and knew I had my work cut out for me really learning how to drive all over again.

Over the next couple of weeks, I drove the car as much as I could and honestly, I got pretty good at the manual transmission. I attempted to “dress up” the 12 year old Chevy, even embarking on compounding the tired paint, till I realized I was compounding through the paint to the steel of the body. I settled for applying a racing stipe on the car, and getting a couple of new tires. The AM radio worked fine, and this was before the day of FM’s dominance, so I could listen to WABC, and all the other appropriate stations for a person my age!

My friend Richard and I were spending the summer before college working at Alexanders Department Store in Rego Park, and it had become my routine to pick Richard up at 96th Street and 34th Avenue on the mornings we worked, and for the two of us to drive to and from Rego Park together. One sunny summer morning, as we were heading east along 34th Avenue, and cresting a slight hill, I was momentarily blinded by the bright sun directly in front of us, but slowly then realized that there was a car stopped in the middle of the road. I attempted to stop, but I didn’t, and hit the back end of the stopped car and pushed it for most of a block before we both stopped in front of a school yard in Corona. Turns out that in the summer of 1967, while driving a 1955 Chevy, I hit a 1951 Chevy. I will always remember the name of the driver of the car, Mr. Lemberg Nelson, and the first words he said to me as we both stepped out of the car, “Oh my neck!”

Luckily Walter had installed seat belts in the car during his ownership, so Richard and I were belted in. However, pre-shoulder belts and air bags, I hit the steering wheel with my face, right under my nose, and although I didn’t lose any teeth, I did get 8 stitches in my upper gum. Richard had a bagel in his teeth at the time of the accident, so he had a 1967 version of an air bag and got no injuries!

Unfortunately, that was the end of my 55 Chevy, as it was not worth repairing the car based on the damage and the age and value of the vehicle. I always marveled over the fact that in the summer of 1967, while driving a 1955 Chevy, I had an accident with a 1951 Chevy. A 12 year old car hitting a 16 year old car…what are the odds. Also, if you remember from earlier in my tale, I was a neophyte stick shift driver, having had less than a month’s experience driving a 3 pedal car. For the last 54 years I have never really been 100% sure, if on that fateful morning while trying to stop the car, I hit the brake pedal OR the clutch pedal, and I guess I never will.

So those are the two big things I owe to my Mom and Dad’s co-workers, Kathy and Walter Hemmerly. My first car, that lasted less than a month, and my love for Ocean City, NJ, that has lasted a lifetime! Thanks Kathy and Walter!!

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