A Cold War Atlantis - A Boyhood Uptown
By Benjamin Feldman
One afternoon this past winter, I and my new friend Bill drove over from his Jersey home to the northeast corner of Inwood, looking for something very special. We parked on 9th Avenue just north of 207th Street, next to the municipal bus garage. To the north, a fence blocked our way to the river bank, where Captain Moffat’s yard once stood. There’s no public access now to the rotting ghost-piles. But Bill and I peered through the chain link at the grimy water and the remnants of a pier under which he swam as a child as he reminisced about the water quality, even worse fifty years ago than today.
Down at the east end of Dyckman Street, Bill and I walked through a large tract of overgrown muck along the river shore. Stepping gingerly, we slipped through a tumble-down fence and approached the ruins of an ancient shingled boathouse. Despite broken bottles and the stench of rotting vegetation all about, Bill pressed towards the water in his sneakers, eager to find the traces of a life gone by.
We wandered into the park that separates Bette Midler’s offshore boathouse jewel from the recently-built social services site to the north. Suddenly, I felt we were trespassing, though in a clearly public space, as if the gulls swooping and shrieking above were warning us away. In the distance, we heard a shrill whistle, and a twinge of fear ran up my spine. The wail of the Civil Defense air-raid siren was unmistakable, a nightmare recalled from our childhood homes. Not a word passed as we turned and walked back to our car.
Cocktail party chat is what’s called for at many a gathering, but when I asked an unassuming question of my seat mate at a dinner party this past New Year’s Eve, a pirate’s treasure chest yawned open right in front of my eyes. “Did you grow up in New York?” I inquired of Bill Isecke, a gentle, blue-eyed 67-year old man. “Yes, I did,” came his shy reply. Though no more was offered, I could tell from his bespectacled grin that I was on to something big. “And which neighborhood did you come from?” His answer made my jaw drop.
“I spent most of my school years living on a boat in the Dyckman Street boatyard,” Bill said. I’m a New York City history aficionado, and I assumed that Bill meant the ramshackle boatyard that still exists on the western end of Dyckman Street at the Hudson River. But it turned out that Bill meant the other end of Dyckman Street, the Harlem River side, of which I was ignorant. Now he had me, hook, line and sinker.
“After the Russians blockaded West Berlin and the airlift began in 1948, my refugee father became very worried about the prospect of another World War,” Bill told me. “Tension blazed between the United States and Russia.” Much like the nation-wide fright during the Cuban missile fourteen years later, and the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, civilian Americans began to think in terms of personal survival when the strangulation of Berlin was attempted. “My father decided to buy a boat for my mother and we four children to live on, in case we had to escape the area on short notice. Dad imagined fleeing to South America if Stalin made good on his anti-US tirades.”
Bill’s father, Kurt Isecke, was only eleven years old when the First World War ended. He fled Germany at age twenty without having seen military service. But every German knew the horror of war and the devastation that it brought to an invaded land. Seven days after Stalin closed the Autobahn into West Berlin, Bill’s father bought a 57-foot long cabin cruiser in exchange for a $2000 promissory note. “We abandoned our little apartment in Teaneck, New Jersey, and went to live in Little Ferry, on the Hackensack River,” Bill told me. It soon became clear to me why what seemed a miniscule price for a 57-foot long mahogany-paneled and brass-fixtured vessel was no great bargain.
Already named the Ne-Wi-Ma when Bill’s father took title, the boat was built during World War I in the Consolidated Shipbuilding Corporation’s West Bronx yard for the famous Irish-American tenor, John McCormack. Subsequent owners of the gasoline-powered twin screw included Gatsby-era banker Commodore George F. Baker, Jr. of the New York Yacht Club. The Depression arrived, and Adolf Hitler assumed power in 1933. Tycoons like George Baker lost their fortunes and their toys a few years after the Junker landowning Isecke family lost everything in the inflation that destroyed the Weimar Republic.
I can’t account for the Ne-Wi-Ma’s life in the 30s, but fuel was scarce during World War II, and the boat probably saw little use during and after the War. The derelict vessel lay submerged in the muck and reeds at the edge of the Hackensack River for half a year after ice punctured its hull during the winter of 1947-8. Kurt Isecke had the boat hoisted from its watery resting place and stabilized on squared-off timbers for the many-month long job ahead. Bill was eight years old when his father began the Herculean task of cleaning and repairing the boat. First, a layer of mud and silt had to be removed from every surface. New hull planks were installed to make the boat seaworthy. Both engines were frozen, and although Bill’s expert father was able to repair and restart them, he could never free up one of the clutches. One drive train remained permanently in forward gear. Though clumsy to maneuver, all 500 horsepower were still available to propel the craft when Kurt and his wife Virginia ventured out on open water.
Little Ferry, New Jersey is a heavily industrial, south-central Bergen County borough on the western bank of the Hackensack River. The Gates brothers maintained a boatyard at the foot of Treptow Street in the late 1940s, and it was there that the Isecke family moved in September 1948 after the Ne-Wi-Ma was made somewhat habitable. Running water was only available at the boatyard. Carrying water to the boat in gallon jugs was one of the children’s daily chores. Light and heat were provided by kerosene lamps and unvented heaters, and when Bill entered the Wilson Elementary School that fall, his classmates poked fun at the little boy whose clothes stank from the fumes. His mother, Virginia, relied on shore-side cookouts for many family meals. After a month in the water, serious leaks developed, and the boat had to be removed from the river again. The family still slept aboard, but switched to using the boathouse’s sanitary facilities.
Life aboard the Ne-Wi-Ma was always cramped. The four children slept in bunk beds in the foc’s’le, where portholes provided the only natural light. Kurt and Virginia slumbered in the cabin on the main deck, which served as an all-purpose work, sleeping, and eating space. Two pedal-pump flush toilets made the morning bathroom crunch manageable. After a few years, Kurt replaced the open back deck with two new cabins to provide more living space and privacy for the family of six.
Despite the physical and social limitations, life on the boat in Little Ferry was exciting for Bill and his brothers and sisters. The boatyard bordered the vast meadowlands swamp covered with giant phragmites that provided endless opportunities for childhood adventures. An abandoned house in the middle of the reeds was rumored to be haunted, and the four Isecke children braved entry, finding old papers, a creaky stairway, and ancient furniture in it. The lake nearby was fun to play alongside, but swimming was forbidden because of large snapping turtles. Each evening, Virginia would read aloud to the children from a classic book. Johann Wyss’ classic, The Swiss Family Robinson, was a natural favorite. Bill’s eyes lit up as he told me how he and his siblings pretended to be that family, shipwrecked and coping in the wilderness., building a tree house by the lake with secret paths and clandestine hideouts among the mosquito-infested brush. 1949 brought a fantastic event: a seaplane crashed in the nearby swamps, and the Isecke kids clambered aboard to claim souvenir ailerons.
The Berlin Airlift continued through the winter of 1948-9, and the political climate in the United States turned virulently anti-Communist. The Isecke family, with its liberal political leanings and odd-ball lifestyle, made few friends in a community where they paid no property taxes but still sent their children to the local public school. Bill Isecke had a miserable year in fourth grade in Little Ferry. He was ostracized by his classmates, and refused to participate or do any homework, choosing, instead, to quietly read library books that he hid under his desk. The prospect of Bill’s returning to the poorly staffed school to repeat fourth grade with the same teacher caused his parents to consider alternate moorings.
Bill’s mother found out that the New York City schools would accept her son in the fifth grade, so the family made plans to move across the Hudson before the start of the new school year. On a bright summer day in 1949, the Iseckes headed downriver, tooting the Ne-Wi-Ma’s horn three times at each drawbridge on the way to Newark Bay. Out into the Hudson River they motored, and in just a few hours made their way around the Battery, and then northward to a berth at their new home on the Harlem River. The once fashionable boat clubs that stood on upper Manhattan’s eastern shore declined quickly during the Depression and World War II, so the now down-market moorage at Dyckman Street was feasible for the impecunious Isecke family.
Kurt Isecke had no patience for bureaucracy and quit his job whenever he became dissatisfied with his employers. However, his self confidence, adeptness with mechanics and all manner of manual trades, coupled with a brilliant mind and a deeply-ingrained work ethic allowed him to find work easily. While the children were young, Virginia kept house on the boat, only returning to work in the New York City Welfare Department when Bill was fourteen years old. Money was not a pre-requisite to enjoying many of the cultural resources of New York, and Bill’s parents took their children all over town, visiting museums, religious sanctuaries, and botanical gardens, as well as encouraging the growth of left-wing political minds in their children. Through the McCarthy years and thereafter, the Isecke children were treated to a steady diet of peace gatherings, and familiarization with the religions of the world.
Since funds were always scarce, Virginia had to be very frugal to make sure that there was enough to eat. “She sometimes bought horsemeat or breast of lamb (which consisted mainly of bone) but cost only five cents a pound for dinner’s main course,” Bill told me. “I had a weekend business catching minnows and selling them to the fishermen for bait.” Blue crabs harvested from under the docks provided many dinners, just as they had in Little Ferry.
Kurt Isecke also made friends with the operator of the next boatyard upriver. Captain John Moffat’s day job was serving as a boiler fireman in a government-owned building. Off duty, though, he ran the dock at 208th Street and the Harlem River. The car junkyard across the inlet from where the Ne-wi-Ma was berthed was a boyhood paradise for Bill. Large ball bearings from that lot east of 9th Avenue and north of 207th Street were a particular treasure for Bill, who used his slingshot to fling the steel orbs out across the Harlem River, pretending to be young George Washington by the shores of the Rappahannock.
The Cold War decreased from a boil to a steady simmer during the mid-1950s, and as the Isecke children grew taller, life on the Ne-Wi-Ma became too crowded for Virginia and the children. The gleaming new Fordham Hill apartment complex rose just across the river, and in the fall of November 1957, a reluctant Kurt Isecke signed a three-year lease there. At first, though, Bill’s father refused to move off the boat. Only after a month of Virginia’s cajoling was the Ne-Wi-Ma left vacant for the first time in nine years.
Bill Isecke commuted from Inwood to Gompers High School in the East Bronx where he pursued his interests in photography, radio and television, and in 1959 earned a Regents diploma and the first Regents scholarship ever awarded to a student of that school. His mother’s memoirs for the surrounding years are filled with notes of his progress at the draft board, application for conscientious objector status, and the family’s interactions with A.J. Muste, A.J. Rankin, and other leaders of the pacifist movement in the Eisenhower years.
The family held on to the Ne-Wi-Ma until November 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a peaceful end that year after two weeks that shook the world in late October. But perhaps Kurt’s quitting a six-year long job at Academy Electric Company uptown had more to do with the sale of the boat for $950 that autumn. At least there was enough left over from the sale to buy a used Plymouth sedan to replace the rattle-trap “Henry J.” that preceded it as the family vehicle. According to Bill, there was little sorrow when they moved off the river. Social difficulties at the children’s schools and the isolation of living an independent life had taken a toll on the family. Neither Bill’s parents nor he have kept a boat since the Ne-Wi-Ma slipped away. Kurt Isecke always did whatever he put his mind to with intensity, but once abandoned, a project or an invention was abandoned for good. Hopefully the Ne-Wi-Ma stayed afloat for many more years.
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969. His essays about New York and Yiddish culture have appeared on-line in The New Partisan Review, Ducts literary magazine, and in an earlier edition of The Gotham History Blotter. Much of his work can be read on his website, The New York Wanderer. His books include Butchery on Bond Street- Sexual Politics and The Burdell-Cunningham Case in Antebellum New York and the forthcoming Call Me Daddy – The Lives and Loves of Edward West Browning, New York’s Jazz-Age Lecher King.