Chapter 19

The Congress Street Gang

As for members of the Congress Street Gang, you must remember that some came while others left. In those days, young people did not hang around taverns, and few had cars. So they would generally congregate on the porches of each other's homes and chew the fat or indulge in horseplay or other innocent amusements.

There were, as I remember, my sisters Berenice and Elizabeth, Dorothy Wert, Fanny and Betty Cayen, Beatrice and Dean Pearson, Bob Dwyer, the Bracy brothers (Jimmy, Walt, Lynn and doc, as he was called), Donald LaDuke, Harvey Gill (who was Fanny's boyfriend at that time), Jimmy Durand, Sylvia Cox, Vernon Rogers, and a kid who I can only remember by his first name, Pete. Pete and Donny LaDuke lost their lives in the war. There were a few more, but these were the core of the crowd. We would go on a great many picnics or go swimming in a group. These were the happiest times of my life.  The members of the Congress Street Gang were all in their late teens, and after a couple of years they started pairing up as they found girlfriends or boyfriends outside the group.

 I Lose My Sister

In 1940 my sister Gladys came home for the last time.  She was about fourteen then and her eyesight was nearly gone in one eye. The other eye had been removed in an effort to slow down her growing blindness.

She attended the school for the blind in Batavia, N.Y. and came home every summer. She was reading and writing in Braille and showed me how to read it also, by sight of course. After a while I became very good at it.  Gladys was a very gentle little girl. She was always good natured, in spite of her handicap. If she was distressed, she never showed it. She was just a very nice person to have around. She stayed a couple of weeks in July, then went back to Batavia. A couple of weeks later we received word that she was dead. She had drowned in a swimming pool at the school.  My mother sent one of the girls up to the Cayens to tell me. When I got home, everyone sat around crying.  Finally my brother Pete went out and got a quart of wine, but I can't say that it helped much.

As there were no funeral parlors in those days, we tried the following day to clean up the house somewhat for the wake. Glady's body would be arriving on the eight-o-clock evening train. My mother went downtown to buy some new linoleum for the kitchen floor, which was quite bad.  Meanwhile a great many flowers came to our house from sympathetic people who had read about my sister's tragic end. One card and flowers came from Helen Keller, perhaps the most famous blind person of all time. Another came from a local girl named Charlotte Chase, a blind woman who was famous in her own right. The story must have been published over a great deal of the country to have so many famous people take note of it.

The linoleum my mother had ordered came the morning we received the word of Glady's death, and we proceeded forthwith to lay it down in the kitchen. The pattern of this linoleum was protected by a thin sheet of Kraft paper. Before I continue, you must understand that we worked silently as we were all numb with grief. Suddenly my sister Elizabeth stepped on a piece of paper that covered the slick surface of the new rug. Her feet shot out from under her and she performed a perfect somersault in mid air, and came down on her rump with a shocked expression on her face.

 A Knock at the Door

We looked at her with astonishment, and then at each other. But this ludicrous and hilarious bit of gymnastics was too much to be borne, and we all burst into hysterical laughter. At that moment a knock came at the door. When my mother, still laughing, opened it, she found it was the florist with still more flowers. I have often wondered what this poor man thought when he delivered to a house, supposedly immersed in grief, and found us all laughing like madmen. This might have been a blessing in a way, because it snapped us out of our lethargy and we began talking to each other again rather than continuing our terrible silence. 

We received a great deal of food from people we did not even know and, indeed, most of the people who came to the wake were perfect strangers to us. They were well-dressed, yet they came to our shabby home to pay their respects and offer what comfort they could. Many told us that in view of the circumstances, her death might have been a blessing, since she did not have much going for her, and she was too naive and trusting to eventually survive on her own, and international events at the time were proceeding in a manner which made the future very uncertain.  Betty's father, Edward Cayen, worked part time as a salesman for the Smith and Russell car agency. Although he did not like me, he offered a new car for use in the funeral procession, which we gratefully accepted. Gladys was buried near the main gate of the Ogdensburg Cemetery.

The next year, 1941, the United States had begun to mobilize, in the event we could not stay out of the war. A program to train welders and machinists was started at the George Hall Trade School under what was called VEND. I can't remember what the first two initials stood for, but the last two were "National Defense.” This, of course, was going on all over the country. The draft was already in progress. The men of WPA were given a choice of working outside or going to the trade school with the same pay. Although they had no desire to learn, many opted for the trade school since they could stay inside. The course started at four o-clock, after the school kids were through with the shops, and ended at midnight. My brother Pete was in this number, and he told me that he was doing quite well as an apprentice. Dave Baildon taught the school kids during the day, while John Allard taught the WPA class. At the time, I was going to school at night taking the welding class taught by Chuck Ashley, without pay, of course.

 First Band on WSLB

During the summer of 1941 Ogdensburg got its first radio station, WSLB. It was owned by Harold Frank. Eddy Cayen knew one of the people who worked there and arranged for some of us to go down and have an interview and play a few numbers. The personnel at the station were apparently pleased with us because we had a weekly program on Saturday afternoons. One of the announcers dubbed us "The Hillbilly Kids” because the rest of them were younger than myself.  There was Vernon Rogers on the tenor banjo, his brother Vincent on the fiddle, and myself on the guitar.  We provided the music and my sister Berenice and Vernon's sister Helena provided the singing. I was a fairly good singer then, but refused to sing because I had what was called "mike fright.” We were the first live band to broadcast on this station, and were together for about three months when the band finally broke up.

Vernon Rogers’ father also played violin, but his timing was terrible.  Although I played with him for square dances at the Moose Hall, then over a store on Ford Street, it was difficult even for me to follow him. The family was odd in that the names they picked for all their boys began with a V.  There were four sons, named Vernon, Vincent, Victor and Verlynn.  The two girls were named Helen and Helene.

A great deal happened this year. The government held military maneuvers in this area throughout the summer, and there were thousands of troops here. The streets were crowded with soldiers under the command of General Drum. The military base near Watertown had been named Pine Camp, but the name was later changed to Camp Drum, and finally to Fort Drum after this general. The local airport had many fighter planes landing here and in the surrounding countryside, the tanks would demolish small buildings and fences which the farmers were later reimbursed for. All the boys here had to keep a close watch on their girlfriends. In fact my sister Bernice, chafing under my mother's strict discipline, took a bus to Virginia to marry a soldier she had met shortly after the military training was completed.

 FDR Comes to Town

At this time there was a cowboy band here under the leadership of Joey Williams which was really professional. They used to pack the former silk mill with crowds every Saturday night, where they played for round and square dances and put on a very good floor show midway through the evening. When President Roosevelt came to the airport to address the various generals and VIPs both national and local, they needed an amplifier system. Since Joey had the best amplifier in the vicinity, the local officials borrowed it from him. Eddie Benton asked me to work the amplifier while the various speeches were given. Before the president arrived, a man from Williams band came out to the airport and helped me to set it up and adjust the microphone.

A platform had been put together, and soon the big wheels showed up and sat on chairs on the platform while the man from Joey's band and I squatted behind the stage with the equipment. Joey's band member had decided to stay with me so as to not miss the excitement. We had little to do except to adjust the volume to overcome the noise of the crowd. I was no more than fifteen feet from the great man, but his back was turned toward me, except when entering and leaving the platform.  However, I will cherish the fact that I saw him at all. Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln were the only two presidents who really impressed me.