For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Prospect Park Trilogy


by Ken Thompson

W

hat'd he say?"

"He's yelling for us to get off the ice."

I could see him waving like mad but I couldn't make out what he was yelling. I turned around and looked where we had come from. We were about midway in walking across the ice. The distance to the cop would be the same as walking back to Lookout Hill. If we went to the Hill, he could drive around to meet us. There was no way to avoid him.

"Whatdaya wanna do?"

"Let's keep walkin'… we're half way." I answered.

Billy was in his sophomore at Brooklyn Tech so he knew technical things.

"We shouldn't walk too close together… we should spread our weight. You walk over there." pointing to about ten feet further away from me.

The cop was still yelling and waving but we couldn't make out what he was saying.

As we walked, taking soft, baby-steps, we could hear deep echo-like sounds coming from under the ice. We could also see wet areas on the lake that looked like they weren't iced over. Maybe walking across the lake wasn't such a smart idea.

"Do a crab walk… that'll spread our weight more."

So down on all fours we went and we started the walk. After about twenty yards I was tired and my hands were soaked and freezing like the ice. I stood up and told Billy, "Wait a minute..."

As he stood up, his left foot, up to the ankle, went through the ice. Billy was down on all fours in a flash… he hadn't fallen in the lake but he could've. He knew it; he was sure breathing hard.

"DON'T COME TOWARD ME!" he yelled, then caught a breath. "Walk the other way so we don't put more weight and pressure on the ice."

"STAY THERE,I'LL GET A LADDER.", the cop yelled and ran to his squad car. This we heard.

Billy slid on his knees toward me and after ten feet stood up, putting no weight on his heels. I kept the distance between us and moved toward the shore. We now started to walk like high-wire performers; our arms outstretched and taking steps very carefully. We weren't talking; we were scared; and praying. At least I was.

To anyone who saw us; between the crab walk and being ballerinas, we would've looked nuts.

We didn't wait for the cop and the ladder.

As we reached shore the cop began a tirade; "YOU COULDA BEEN KILLED? WHAT ARE YOU, IDIOTS? COULDN"T YOU READ THE 'KEEPOFFTHEICE' SIGNS? GET IN THE CAR!"

As we got in we saw another cop sitting in the front passenger seat. He said nothing, looked straight ahead, and seemed mildly annoyed to have this duty and this intrusion in his work day. He was scary, not menacing; just scary.

Billy and I were actually glad to get in the back of the patrol car. We were frozen and it was warm. The terror of possibly falling through the ice into the Prospect Park Lake was replaced the fear of what would happen to us when our parents came to pick us up at a Police Station. Also, what's with the cop in the front seat?

After the cop who'd been yelling to us put some stuff away, he got in the car. He had quieted down, though he still had a very stern face. He looked to me first and then to Billy. He gave us "the look".

"You kids okay? It's dangerous on the ice. We rescued three kids yesterday. You could have been hurt. What's your names, addresses, and phone number. Yeah, and wheredaya go to school?"

After he wrote down the information, he called in on his radio and gave some code numbers that sound gibberish to me and started driving. He drove around the lake with the heater on high… thank goodness. We didn't know where he was taking us. No one was saying anything though we could see him eyeing us in the rear-view mirror.

He saw no one else who had to be rescued. Not that Billy and I had to be rescued, we had everything under control. Billy and I were glancing at each other not knowing what would happen next. The cop in the passenger's seat still said nothing, not even to the other cop.

When we got around to the Park Circle entrance, he turned on the siren and I was sure he was going to take us to the police station by the Parade Grounds. The alternative of the Riverside Memorial Chapel, right there, wasn't good either. My heart was beating fast… this was my new worst of fears: facing my outraged and indignant Dad, and maybe being dead. Having St. John's Prep find out and punish me somehow was a definite possibility but not up there with my Dad and being dead.

The second cop still had said nothing and just stared stoically ahead.

"HE'S DRIVING PAST THE POLICE STATION. WHERE IS HE TAKING US?", I thought. As he turned onto Caton Avenue, my mind raged, "HE'S TAKING US RIGHT TO OUR PARENTS. I'M DEAD FOR SURE."

At East 5th Street near where Billy lived he stopped and asked us if we were okay. We told him we were and he said "Don't let me catch youse kids on the ice again. Get outta the car." We exited pronto. He gave a slight wave as he drove away.

Billy and I just looked at each other. Billy said "Wow, I thought he was gonna take me right to my house. All the neighbors would have seen. My Dad would have killed me. What was with that other cop? Hey, I'll call you tomorrow."

I hurried home and hoped that my parents wouldn't get a phone call. When I got home, I put my gloves on the radiator to dry. When my Mom asked me how my afternoon was I told her "Fine. We went for a walk in the Park and talked to a cop about the ice." She said, "Don't ever go out on it, it can be dangerous. Why don't you do some homework before dinner?" I thought, "Why bring up any more about the ice thing if it might not become a problem?" The dreaded phone call never came.

He was a good cop, I should've told him "Thanks."


Years later, I was dating a girl, named Joanne from Fourth Avenue and 10th Street in Park Slope. I had met while taking night classes at St. John's downtown. While I wanted to see her as much as I could, I didn't have the money to make every date "extra memorable". One summer's Saturday night, early sixties, we decided to do a "cheap date" and take a walk up to Prospect Park and spend an evening telling each other our dreams.

After buying two bottles of Coke and two pieces of cake at Lewnes', we crossed Prospect Park West and walked by the statue of Lafayette. We could hear music beyond that coming from boom-boxes. The Bandshell was lit up and there was a big crowd. As we approached we could hear "Big Band" style music and see people dancing. The even bigger surprise was that the orchestra was from the Department of Sanitation! They were good and they were making everyone happy. This was summer nights in Brooklyn and they can't be beat.

They played a wide variety of dance music: Lindy's, Peabody, fox-trot, cha-cha, waltzes, but most of all slow dances. Oh how I loved slow dancing with that girl. We didn't or couldn't dance every dance; I had very limited skills, so when we weren't dancing we were watching, pointing, eating the cakes and drinking Cokes, and talking excitedly.

After a break, the emcee/announcer said they had a request for a "Stack of Barley" song, so they began. I didn't know what "Stack of Barley" music was and it seemed no one else did either. No one was dancing. Out from the left side of the audience appeared a very elderly couple. They looked to be 200 but with additional years of experience behind me, I believe they were probably in their late 70's or early 80's.

They danced beautifully. The steps were very defined and they were so graceful. I was filled with amusement and happy for them. Joanne explained that the dance was a traditional Irish ceili* dance from the "old side" and that you don't see people do it anymore. She held my hand tight.

The announcer came to the microphone and asked the audience to not let them dance alone. People everywhere must have felt the wonder of the evening for in no time the dance area was crowded. No one but the elderly couple was doing the "Stack of Barley" but everyone was having fun and wishing them well.

After awhile we decided to continue our walk and headed toward the Sander's Theatre. While we didn't have an outright fear, we knew it probably wasn't wise to walk in the Park after dark. The outside of the Park was well lit so we kept on walking and talking and exchanging a kiss or two. I told her I loved her and she just gave a slight smile and looked deep into my eyes. She said nothing in response.

In what seemed like no time we found ourselves on Flatbush Avenue heading toward Grand Army Plaza. Once past the Zoo the lighting was poor and the area desolate. We walked faster and were more wary. About a quarter the way up the Avenue, a police car heading south made a u-turn onto the sidewalk behind us and put on his flashing lights. As he came up on the side of us he had the beam of his flashlight going back and forth between our faces.

"Whatta you doing?"

"Just walkin'. I guess we lost track of how far we went and the time."

"Where are you goin'?"

"Back to 9th Street."

He then put his flashlight solely on Joanne and asked,

"Is everything okay?"

"Yes, we were just walking."

The little lipstick she had on was no longer on her lips.

"What parish are you from?"

"St. Thomas Aquinas on 4th Avenue."

"Do you know Father Flynn?"

"Yes. My parents have him over for dinner once in a while."

He put the flashlight beam back and forth on our faces a couple of times and told us to get in the back of the patrol car.

I didn't know what to expect and neither did she but we sure felt some relief. We hadn't done anything wrong so that wasn't an issue. Being in a police car, however, wasn't anywhere on the agenda.

He then got on the radio and gave some code number that sounded gibberish to us and started driving on the sidewalk toward Grand Army Plaza. When we got to 9th Street he told Joanne,

"You should be more careful where you go and who you go with."

I didn't take this opportunity to ask him "What am I, a sardine and banana sandwich?" After we got out, he drove off and gave a slight wave.

Could it be? … Is it possible? … NAH! but just consider me VERY lucky… TWICE! Another good cop. We should have made it more of a point to thank him.

I asked Joanne not to tell her parents that she wound up in a patrol car and got a lecture from a cop ‘cause her father would kill me. She agreed and we continued to go out.

Who says that you have to spend a lot to make a date memorable?


Years later, after marrying Joanne from Park Slope, we had a daughter, Kristen, that was a delight. We were living in a small attic apartment on Argyle Road, not too far from Prospect Park. Every weekend we would look for something to do. There was always parents, relatives and friends but we looked for something more. In Brooklyn the possibilities were endless and varied. There was Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, parking spots overlooking the Narrows by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. There were festivals and parades, block parties and window shopping. There were strolls on the Promenade, Ocean Parkway, Kings Highway, Manhattan Beach, Flatbush Avenue, the Boardwalk, and the Botanical Gardens.

Of all the possibilities, the one Kristen enjoyed most were the trips to the Prospect Park Zoo.

There was always a squeal of delight when we would tell her that we were going to the Zoo. We usually tried to hold off telling her till we were packed and getting her clothes on.

The outing was always pretty much the same. We would load up the '62 Corvair and head off to Karp's at Flatbush Avenue near Foster. As we would walk in, Mike, one of the countermen with big forearms and navy tattoos would say, "Out for an outing again? What'll it be today?" I don't know why he asked, the answer was always the same, "We'll split a black-and-white malted and save some to put in the baby's bottle."

He would always make them thick, sweet and to the brim of the stainless steel container. He'd serve them in a tall, cone shaped, ribbed glasses. I remember the distinct taste of the malt. They were so delicious. The patrons all seemed to be regulars. They'd come over to see Kristen and give her a slight pinch. When we were finished, we would drive up Flatbush Avenue noting what stores were gone and which new ones were coming in.

We would tell Kristen what restaurants we had gone to and whether we would go back or not. We'd tell her what movies we had seen at what theatres and where Fulton's, Jahn's, Garfield's, and Carsten's were, as if she could remember or relate to our experiences. In reality, the story telling was for us as we cemented memories

The closer to the Zoo entrance on Flatbush Avenue we could park the better but on a sunny Sunday we had to expect that we couldn't get too close.

For a small child, what's not to like about a Zoo?... monkeys, elephants, bears, lions, parrots, and most of all the seals. The seals won out because they were active, didn't smell, and there was always room around their large pool. The seal pool was always the first and last place we stopped when we came to the Zoo. Once there, we would make all the stops but most of all we tried to time our visits for the feeding times of the animals. A required stop was the carousel for a ride. The ride was probably more for Joanne than Kristen but that was okay.

It got so that when Kristen saw the seals for a second time on a visit she knew we were about to leave and would cry and start to make a scene. The fresh air from the Zoo outing would always tire us out and we would sleep well.

Some nights when Kristen would become tired and cranky there was generally no easy way of consoling her and quieting her down. In our small apartment, all sounds traveled to all floors so we particularly tried to keep her quiet. As a last resort, I would tell her we were going to the Zoo. I would bundle her up and put her in her car seat and drive off. We would head to the Park and I would drive the outer Park drives till the hum of the car engine, the soft music on WNEW AM, the rhythmic passing of street lights and the softness of the night scenery of the Park would take their toll and she would fall asleep. We would head home.

The Park has always been an integral part of my life. But growing up I really knew nothing about it from why it is named Prospect Park to its totally contrived structure to the 60 acre man-made lake.

I took Prospect Park for granted. I didn't really see the bridges, arches, monuments, tunnels, and pathways that were part of a 526 acre undertaking. Growing up I didn't see it, but through a rearview mirror of years, I can see it all. Maybe not as it was but as I want to remember it.

Prospect Park has been very good to me.

*From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language – Fourth Edition – ceili or ceilidh – n. An Irish or Scottish social gathering with traditional music, dancing and storytelling. (Irish Gaelic from Old Irish)




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