Growing up in the mid-1930s, my brother and I took an excursion boat to school. The only motor vehicle on our streets was a 1-ton Ford Army truck, and we sometimes had to fish baseballs out of New York Harbor. Such was our life on Bedloe’s Island, now known as Liberty Island.
At the time, the island was home to Fort Wood and about 30 Army post families, all of us neighbors of the island’s best-known resident, the Statue of Liberty. There were officers and noncommissioned officers, and a garrison consisting of one company of about 60 military policemen. It was like a big family, with rank less important than elsewhere in the Army.
My father, Maj. Clell Perkins, the Port of New York and New Jersey veterinarian, worked at Fort Jay on nearby Governor’s Island. Each morning, my brother, Tom and I boarded the Hook Mountain excursion boat, along with Dad, at the covered pier in front of the Statue of Liberty to get to school at Fort Jay. All the other officers except Capt. Huskea, the post commandant, worked at Fort Jay, too.
One foggy 1930s morning our boat collided with a ferry, with the wooden side of the Hook Mountain penetrated by the ferry’s catwalk. No on was injured, and the Hook Mountain returned to service after some repairs. To the joy of us youngsters, the Favorite—the nicer excursion boat for tourists—was our ride while the other boat was being fixed up.
On weekends, we shared our island with lots of visitors to the Statue of Liberty. Many couples arrived at the covered pier to be married in front of her, but we’ve been told that the only island resident to be married there was my sister, Carolyn, when she wed 2nd Lt. Gerald L. Roberson.
On that same pier, Tom got a big splinter in his rear end and had to go to the dispensary to get it removed. All of us kids watched from the porch and enjoyed my brother’s outburst of cuss words during the process.
There was also an open pier for fishing. The fish we caught were small and inedible, but they made great bait for catching blue crabs.
Getting around on Liberty Island took time, because we had to walk everywhere. Beside the one truck, there were three mules, one four-wheeled wagon and a two-wheeled cart that were used when the Ford broke down. The truck delivered coal for heating and brought ice for the iceboxes, since we had no refrigerators. Groceries from the Fort Jay commissary came from across the harbor, and these, too, were delivered by truck.
I remember seeing tender boats delivering groceries and drinking water to anchored barges in the harbor. People lived in cabins on the barges during those tough Depression times of the 1930s, and I’d see them dipping buckets into the harbor to do laundry.
We sat in the stands on Saturdays when the Fort Wood baseball team hosted clubs from nearby Fort Hamilton, Fort Totten, Fort Slocum and Fort Wadsworth. Sometimes we even got to go to games at the other posts.
The baseball diamond, also used as part of the parade grounds, and the tennis court were close enough to the water’s edge so that players regularly sent balls into the drink. To fish them out, we had a contrivance made of lightweight wood and clothesline.
Our post exchange had one or two bowling lanes, but other entertainment had to be reached by boat. We knew a lot of the enlisted men, and our parents sometimes paid them to take us kids to movies and other amusements in New York City. A private’s pay back then was $21 a month, so the extra income came in handy.
We were privileged to see what were then two of the largest ocean liners in the world, the SS Normandie and the RMS Queen Mary, on their maiden voyages to New York in 1935 and ’36. The Normandie, the best-looking ship afloat in those days, made the transatlantic trip in record time. My father knew the ship’s veterinarian, so we got a tour of that great ship.
Dad also knew the vet for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and we got to meet Jack Earle, the famous 7-1/2-foot giant, when the circus came to New York.
I’ll never forget the beauty of the Statue of Liberty with her lights glowing in the falling snow. Another thing that always fascinated me was the amount of cork left on the shore when the tide went out. Years later, I realized that these were likely the remnants of life preservers from decades of tragedies at sea.
When Dad got reassigned to the Philippines, we had to leave Rags, our Airedale, with the Fort Wood MPs. While still overseas in the ’40s, we learned that Fort Wood had been deactivated—but the troops reassigned to Camp Dix, New Jersey (now Fort Dix), took their beloved Rags with them and posted her at the camp fire station.
This old “Army brat” lived on many posts for over 17 years, but Fort Wood was the most unusual and interesting of them all.
Dan Perkins • Johnstown, Ohio