AUGUST EIGHTEENTH NINETEEN SIXTY-NINE, BIG JAKE AND JOHNNY C AND ME
by Ben Fine
“Eight in the side,” Johnny C said, and then confidently sunk the ball. He reached up with his cue and slid the bead marking a hundred across the string. This was the third game and his opponent’s shoulders slumped and his face showed that he’d been beaten. “Put the forty on the table,” Johnny C told him and then he glided over to the other side of the pool table and scooped it up. Johnny C was smooth as silk at the tables and he could make a pool cue sing. Running twenty or thirty balls was easy for him. His opponent was some hot shot tough guy from Bensonhurst who had heard of Johnny C and thought he could take him,
Big Jake and I sat on the sidelines and when the game ended we smiled at each other. We knew that Johnny C would share his winnings and we’d all go over to Rocco’s and have a pizza. As soon as the Bensonhurst guy left, Johnny C came over, sure as sunrise and said, “Well guys, let’s go get something to eat.” Big Jake shook his head, “I’m in a game at seven. You guys go without me.” Nothing could pull the big man from a card game, so Johnny C and I went alone.
This was back in 1963 when on most afternoons without football practice, Big Jake, Johnny C and I spent our time at the Lucky Tee on Fifth Street, shooting pool or playing cards. All three of us were only seventeen and should have been carded, but Fat Joey Ciancana was Johnny C’s cousin and he ran the place. He turned a blind eye when we walked in.
The Lucky Tee was an old pool room and a bar; dusty, dark and grimy. Fat Joey sat behind the desk just past the entrance and collected; it cost a dollar an hour for time. “How much are you in for?” he’d ask anyone who walked through the front door. He watched over six pool tables in the front room and above each table were an ornate glass light and a string of beads. Score was kept by sliding the beads across the strings. There were always guys playing, while others sat around watched and talked. Daytimes had the younger players, the hot shot wannabes, but late night was for the wise guys, hustlers and movers. The big games for the big bucks were on table four, a bit fancier than the others, and usually after eleven PM you could watch some real sharks at work.
The back room of the Tee was a bar that reeked of stale beer and cigarette smoke. In that room was a collection of card tables and any time of day or night you could find a game; some big money, some small potatoes. Gambling was illegal, but no one was nervous. Vinny the Cop walked in and out and drank, and some from Vinny’s precinct sat at the tables.
Big Jake, Johnny C and I started to hang out in the Tee when we were only sixteen years old. Johnny C could already shoot with the best and each day he played a money game. Occasionally he took on a big match if he put together the stakes. Bobby the Baron was the master shark at the Lucky Tee and he played against Johnny C several times. Each knew they couldn’t hustle the other so it was pure skill matches; the bets meaningless. Johnny came close on a few occasions but the Baron was the best and he usually pulled it out. “Good try kid,” the Baron would say, “someday you’ll be raking in the bucks.”
Jake and I could shoot with only minimal skill, but in the back room, at the poker tables, Jake was a master. His dad, Moe Herman, was a cab driver and a degenerate gambler. The family struggled and the Hermans ate regularly only when Moe won; which sad to say was infrequent. Moe liked to say “the only luck I got is bad luck”, but his son Jake took skill over luck and learned cards inside out. Even against the professional card hawks that wandered into the Lucky Tee, he did well. Jake was big; a tackle on the football team, six foot two and two hundred thirty pounds so we all called him Big Jake. Me, I was just me, Danny Klein; an undersized linebacker at five-nine one sixty-five.
The three of us met in junior high, two Jews and an Italian. Somehow we clicked. Four years later we were in our junior year in high school and my world revolved around the three of us; the three amigos, the three musketeers. We were rock solid best friends and more like brothers. We were soul mates before that expression was ever even used. My mother and Mrs. Ciancana always cooked for two extra mouths, just in case the other two came along. We teased each other, we gambled and we fought, but we loved each other. I would have put my arm in a fire for either one of them. We thought those days would never end and I couldn’t imagine a world without my closest buddies.
Johnny C and I were good students and we did well in school. Big Jake struggled; he just wasn’t a student.. Johnny C, always Johnny C, never just John or Johnny, wanted to be a writer. He made up stories and in English class he had the ability to write a story in the style of whoever we were reading, Hemingway, Twain, Hawthorne, whoever. He was amazing. Our English teacher, Mr. Silver, once told him, “Of all my students over the years, you’re the one I’d bet on to become a famous author.” Johnny C lived with his mother and sister and they struggled to get by; his father died when he was eight. His two older brothers, Tommy and Gino, both construction workers, were both married with kids, and the two of them did their best to take care of their mom, little brother and sister. Tommy Ciancana, who had a reputation as one of the toughest guys in the neighborhood, told him, “Johnny you got the brains in this family. We’ll see you get to college and see you be a famous author.”
I was good at math and science and I was going to be an engineer and build things. My father struggled as a cutter in the garment center but my older brother Josh had become a chemist. Big Jake had no plans but he would get by like his dad had done. The world and the future was laid out for each of us.
Some nice afternoons before we got to the Tee, Jumping Joe Reddy, bouncing his basketball, would catch us. “Let’s go shoot some hoops” Joe would say and we would all head to Grady Park and bang the boards for hours.
Jumping Joe was the finest basketball player in the neighborhood. He could fancy dribble like Bob Cousy, shoot like Oscar Robertson and he could easily dunk, which was quite an accomplishment for a skinny white guy no more than 6 feet tall. He played for our high school but played more in money leagues on the weekend at Manhattan Beach where people came from all over Brooklyn. In those leagues Jumping Joe showcased his talent and put on quite a display as a dunker. We’d go and watch him. One Sunday he played against some big guy who was much better than everyone else. On one play though, Jumping Joe did a spin move and dunked over him. The big timer laughed and told him “You have some nice moves kid.” Jumping Joe, as confident as Muhammad Ali, nodded and answered “you’re not bad yourself.” We found out later that it was Billy Cunningham who was playing in the NBA.
In the park we played a buck a game for two on two. Jumping Joe could do everything but pass; he never gave up the ball so he was beatable in two on two. Big Jake was strong enough and quick enough to play defense on him and we flip flopped between Johnny C and me to see who played with Jumping Joe and who played with Big Jake. Johnny C was taller than I, he could almost dunk also, but I had a better shot so the games were always competitive. Most afternoons everyone broke even although a lot of cash passed hands.
One night in our junior year, Jake went with Moe to a poker game at the Tee. There were some players from Manhattan with suits on who were cleaning out the place. Moe was losing, as usual, and grumbling, so he gave his stake and his seat to Jake. The gamblers had sized Moe up as a patsy and didn’t seem too concerned about the big kid who took his place. However the stars aligned for Big Jake, the cards came his way, and when the dust settled, he and Moe walked away with eight hundred dollars. Moe gave him a hundred and then used some of the rest to buy his son a car, a beat up old red Buick Skylark that Jake polished to a bright shine. From that point on we spent an awful lot of time cruising around in Big Jake’s car. We never went anywhere special but we logged a lot of miles. Gas was cheap, and we knew a lot of people, so we managed to visit all over Brooklyn and hit on every girl we met.
With the freedom of Big Jake’s car, we went to every party we heard of. We weren’t bad looking and at each place we met a collection of good looking girls. Back then we didn’t think about relationships, or dating; it was all what you could get and what you could do with the nicest looking female you could meet. For us it was hook up and move on. Dion sang our motto in his song the Wanderer; I’m the type of guy who will never settle down.
The girl I remember best was sweet Lorraine. She had curly hair and the sweetest smile and it was with her that I became a grown man for the first time. I was with her only once but she wanders quite often into my memories. I met her at a fraternity party for some Brooklyn College frat. She was older, already in college and a cute giggle to go with her smile and her curly hair. I smiled at her, said hello, and we had a beer together. We talked a bit, had another beer, and then disappeared into one of their back rooms. She let me do what I wanted. It was strange for a first time; other people were walking in and out of the room, but for a boy of seventeen it was the greatest experience of my life. Lorraine and I kissed goodnight but I never took her phone number and sadly I never saw her again. In Big Jake’s car on the way home I was in seventh heaven. I talked and talked about it. “Shut up already Danny” Johnny C told me. “It’s not the only time in your life that you’ll get laid.” Still after years and years, lovers and a wife, loving has never again been so sweet as with Lorraine.
Despite the gambling, the ball playing and the carousing we did our best to finish high school and we graduated in 1964. Johnny C and I went to Brooklyn College where I majored in Engineering and Johnny C in English. Jake took some courses at a community college but then gave up school and drove a cab with his dad. He picked up more of a living playing cards at the Tee.
We still hung out together, but the intensity of our friendship waned as we got older and real life intervened. Schoolwork for Johnny C and me and Jake’s job cut into our hang time. Then I got a girlfriend, Sue, and she took precedence. Yet life went on and in 1968 Johnny C and I graduated college. I taught high school Math, and Johnny C English, to stay out of the army. He also found a neat way to keep writing. He contracted with a company to write the little pamphlets they sell at the super market counters. His first was called the Miracle of Molasses while Biblical Cures was his second. The company sent him a topic; he did some research, and then wrote the pamphlet.
Big Jake though was both One-A for the draft and healthy; in late 1968 he was drafted. He shrugged his big shoulders and told us “Don’t worry about me I’ll be fine.” After living with Moe his whole life, he took everything in stride, and assumed all would eventually work out. The army sent him to Fort Gordon in Georgia and made him a truck driver. Away from home, he became a prolific letter writer and I received at least one letter a week. Occasionally I stopped off at his parent’s apartment to say hello and they had a whole box for his letters. Johnny C joked that he’d have to give Jake some writing lessons when he came home.
In February of 1969 he got orders for Nam and he came home on a short leave before he shipped out. It was awkward knowing that he could get killed but we joked with him anyway. ”Don’t catch anything from the Vietnamese girls” Johnny C advised him and I told him to stay off of the dope that others said was all over Nam. Jumping Joe, who never finished college, spent one tour in Vietnam and came back as a burned out wreck. He told us, “I got stoned the day I got there and I stayed stoned until I left.” Jake left in March and when he got to Nam, his letters kept coming like clockwork.
August eighteenth nineteen-sixty-nine, Johnny C and I were out of school and both teachers. I had a summer job as the pool manager at a swim club, in Sheepshead Bay. Yet on that day my life swerved and changed forever. It has never been the same.
I was at work and the manager called me into the office and handed me the phone.
“Is that you Danny?” a voice asked, cracked and crying. It took a moment before I realized that it was Jake’s mother. “A telegram came today,” she said. She kept talking but I stopped listening, I knew what it was. A sharp pain ran throughout my body as if I had been hit by a truck.
Two uniformed soldiers, carrying a folded flag, came to the Herman’s apartment and handed Jake’s mother the telegram;
We regret to inform you that your son Jacob Herman has been killed in action. He will be awarded all military honors and his body will be shipped home. Please phone Colonel M. Hall at 210-832-4000 for further details.
The soldiers offered no consolation. Jake’s mother gave out a sickening gasp and Moe who was in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the racing form, realized what had happened. He let out a wail like a wounded animal and ran out screaming into the hall. It was the ultimate bad hand for him.
The next two weeks were a horror show. Jake was flown home for a funeral at Riverside Chapel near Prospect Park. The army sent soldiers who wrapped the casket in the American flag and fired a five gun salute. Johnny C and I were pall bearers. His parents were somber, kept it together and didn’t break down; Johnny C and I did. I tried to hold back my tears, but crying came freely and I wept and wept. We learned that Big Jake had been gunned down by a VC sniper while working on a truck on some back jungle dirt road. He eventually became one of the fifty thousand or so names written on the wall in Washington. I’ve been there five times and each time I look at his name I break down and weep.
Life continued, there’s nothing else to say. The war went on and I continued teaching. Johnny C didn’t like the classroom although he loved to write. First he made a living writing those little books for the supermarkets. Then he got married and needed a steadier income so his brother Gino got him a job working construction. He had a college degree, he was a published author, but he was right back with his brothers and still lived in the neighborhood near his mother and sister.
I got married to Sue in 1972 and we moved to Valley Stream. Johnny C and I drifted apart. There was no fight, nothing bad happened, it was just the way it panned out. I had other friends through work, the new neighborhood, and through Suzie.
Every once in a while I go back to the neighborhood and several times I’ve run into Johnny C. When we meet we play the game of “way back when”. We talk about those things we did when we were closer than brothers; those days of Big Jake and Johnny C and me.
Then I leave and we’re back to the way it is; just two guys who knew each other, and were close to a third guy, in a life lived before the life we’re living now. That world of 1963 and those days of Big Jake, Johnny C and me have long since gone. My life has completely changed but sitting there in my memory, those days will go on forever.
Bio: Dr. Ben Fine is a mathematician and professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut in the United States. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Fairfield University and is the author of twelve books (ten in mathematics, one on chess, one a political thriller) as well over 130 research articles. In addition he has published several short stories as well as a novella about pirates. His memoir, told in interwoven stories is Tales from Brighton Beach: A Boy Grow in Brooklyn and details growing up in Brighton Beach a seaside neighborhood on the southern tip of Brooklyn during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Brighton Beach was unique and set apart from the rest of New York City both in character and in time.
The present story is part of collection called Clueless Through the Sixties.