Growing Up in Springdale


Growing Up in Springdale


Typed account of Gil Fagiani's life growing up in the Springdale neighborhood of Stamford, Connecticut. He gives an account of what life was like in Stamford in the 1950s, including spending time with friends and encountering bullies at school.


Fagiani, Gil


The Ferguson Library




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Stamford (Conn.)
Twentieth century


I remember, vividly , October 28, 1950, the day I moved from the Bronx Italian-American
community of Villa Avenue to Stamford. It was a bright fall day. The cloudless sky was a deep blue, a
color my maternal grandmother Nina called azzurr' azzurr'. My father always referred to our new
neighborhood of modest Cape Cods and saltboxes in the Springdale section of Stamford as "The
Colony." Although technically a suburban development, it was surrounded by woods, fields, and
swamps, and in my mind, there was no doubt: we lived in the country. Later on, I would
romanticize the Bronx as my Garden of Eden, where cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents
lived only blocks apart, and the warmth ofthe ethnic village felt like extended family.

But when I first moved to The Colony, I was smitten by the outdoors. There was a brook
that ran alongside my house that formed a large pool, teeming with water striders, pollywogs,
fish, frogs and other interesting creatures. I could catch rainbow trout, using a branch for a pole,
string, a straight pin fashioned into a hook, and bread crumbs as bait. I also developed a fondness
for reptiles and amphibians.

At Springdale Elementary School, our teachers escorted us to the Weed Branch of the
Stamford Library, located next door. While other kids borrowed books on dogs, cats, and horses,
I borrowed books about snakes, frogs, lizards, turtles, and dinosaurs. I remember having heated
arguments with teachers who challenged my fervent belief that dinosaurs still roamed freely in
the Amazon Jungle. Later I became a snake advocate, and excoriated an adult neighbor for
severing in two a gardener snake which had slithered out of its flower bed. I also did my best to
stop kids from shooting at frogs with their BB guns. Not that I had anything against BB guns, per
se. In fact, one ofmy earliest beefs with my father was that he wouldn't let me own one.

The reading bug bit me early. I devoured comics, pulps, and, eventually, novels, often
staying up late reading, then giving my mother a hard time in the morning when I had to get up
and get ready for school.

For the first two years that we lived in Springdale, we made frequent trips back to the
Bronx on weekends, usually by train, so, socially, I didn't feel connected to Connecticut. By
1953, I started making friends, and developed a wanderlust for exploring the roadways, brooks,
marshes, and woods of North Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, and of course, Springdale. Many
times I would be out ofthe house all day and my mother would be beside herself with worry. She
dubbed me "The Wanderer." My love for the outdoors also led me to join both the Cub Scouts
and the Boy Scouts.

The original Colony was comprised of about six blocks, which ran south from Bouton
Street West, where I lived, to Minivale Road. Sociologically, The Colony consisted of young,
white, lower middle-class couples with children who had just bought their first houses, as my
father had, with the help of a 30-year G.!. mortgage. Close by were homes and communities
where the very wealthy resided. Woodway Country Club, in Darien, was a few blocks away from
where I lived, and located on the grounds were several ponds that were among my favorite
fishing holes.

Ever since I can remember, I've been a super-anxious person. I recall sitting in class at
the beginning of the second grade and feeling so anxious that I wanted to scream. This urge to
scream grew stronger, and the more I tried to suppress it, the stronger it grew. Finally, I couldn't
hold it back any longer and let out a long groan of anguish, as if I were suffering from an
unbearable toothache. The kids in the class broke out laughing and, after class, my teacher, Mrs.
Bruno, warned me that she wouldn't tolerate me disrupting her class again.

For my seventh birthday, my mother organized a surprise party for me. As I walked
through the front door, a dozen of my friends and classmates leaped up and hollered "Happy
Birthday!" Instead of feeling happy, I became so overwhelmed by emotion that I ran out of the
house. There were two large culverts that emptied water into a brook that ran alongside our
property. I ducked into one of the culverts and stayed in the dark until my mother found me and
dragged me back to the party. I' ve always felt that this incident revealed something very
fundamental about my emotional makeup.

I first became aware of class differences when I was 10. I had two fifth-grade buddies;
Mike, whose father was a bigwig in the telecommunications field, and Whitey, whose dad was a
member of the Swedish Diplomatic Corps. They lived in mansions set back from Newfield
Avenue, an oak-shaded road less than half a mile from where we lived. At Mike's place, I met
his sister, Lacey, a cute blonde who invited me into the backyard for a game of badminton. She
handed me a racket, then disappeared into the house. Her mother was a lanky woman who
looked like she was dressed for a wedding. After grilling me about where I lived and what my
father did, she told me I could stay for the afternoon, but not to even think of returning, since my
family wasn't part of their community.

I fared even worse at Whitey's house, where he and Mike jimmied the door open to the
cabin next to the duck pond and passed out Dunhill cigarettes and glasses of Chivas Regal. High
on scotch, Whitey fired a steel-tipped arrow from his dad's hunting bow into a pet swan's ass.
That night, his father called mine and blamed me for being a bad influence on his son, and
banned me from ever stepping foot on his property again.

On the surface, Springdale seemed like a peaceful place to live, but there were underlying
tensions and discord. One of my earliest friends was an older boy named Sonny, who lived next
door. He was close to his mother and shared her wrath at his father, who was carrying on with
the doctor's wife across the street. Sonny had a small group of followers who seemed to be
engaged in a perpetual war with a clique of boys led by a vicious bully named Ned. I remember
the all-out battles they waged with rocks, slingshots, and BB guns. Once, Ned's gang hid out in
the bed of a dump truck; then jumped out when we walked by and charged us. We ran into a
neighbor's house and huddled in the basement while Ned's warriors kicked out the cellar 's
windows, only retreating when the police arrived.

The damage bullies inflicted on their victims went unrecognized in the 1950s.
Unfortunately , Butchie M-perhaps Springdale's worst bully-had it out for me. He led a band
of disciples whom I thought of as Butchie 's Bambinos, since they were all Italian. Butchie started
terrorizing me after I pinned one of his Bambinos to the ground in what was a fair fight. Butchie,
older and twice Q1Y size, pulled me off and roughed me up until tears came to my eyes. From
then on, he found any excuse to trip me, smack me, or otherwise make my life miserable. I
would start running as soon as I saw him. Then one day, as I was high-tailing it away from him,
he hit me in the head with a rock. I had to go to the doctor to get stitches and my skull bandaged.
That weekend, I visited my maternal grandmother, Nina, in the Bronx. She had a fit when she
saw me looking like a war veteran, and shamed my father into paying a visit to Butchie's father
to demand that he tell his son to layoff me. From then on, Butchie gave me plenty of venomous
looks, but never laid a hand on me again.

The greatest displays of cruelty I saw growing up were directed toward boys who were
perceived as being effeminate and labeled fairies. They were constant victims of physical
intimidation and violence. Freddy was one of these boys. We had been friends since grade
school, but as I grew older, I refused to be seen with him in public. Although we remained
friends, we both accepted the fact that I couldn't sit next to him on the school bus.

I recall being in the schoolyard once when some older boys started to push Freddy
around. They tore his paper-bag lunch out of his hands and threw it into a big puddle of oily
water. I wanted to say something, come to his defense, but I didn't dare. In those days, boys-as
well as girls-made it clear that if you were friends with a fa iry, then you were suspected of
being one too. The '50s were pitiless in this regard. I was brought up to believe that food is
sacred, and the image of Freddy's lunch floating in a puddle, and my unwillingness to take up for
him, still makes me bum with shame.

At an early age, I acquired a passion for music. There were many influences working on
me. My grandfather Carmelo played a number of string instruments, my Aunt Raffaela was an
opera buff, and my mother had a record collection that exposed me to a wide range of music,
from classical to jazz, including Latin American rhythms and popular music, both in English and
Italian. My father loved jazz, and in particular revered Louis Armstrong, which may account for
why I took trumpet lessons for a few months when I was in the third grade. Most of all, I was
carried away by the cultural earthquake called rock ' n' roll.

I was ten years old when this new and controversial music became commercially
successful. In the fifth grade, I joined the Bill Haley and the Comets Fan Club. I recall sitting
next to my parents' wooden-ribbed Emerson radio every Saturday morning, listening to "Martin
Block's Make-Believe Ballroom" and dutifully recording the Top 40 in a notebook.
Keeping a notebook became a lifelong habit of mine, and in the future, I would keep
notebooks relating to fishing, weightlifting , slang, foreign words and expressions, dreams, and
travel. Over the years, this impulse to record progressed to keeping journals and, eventually, to
writing reviews, essays, short stories, and poetry.

The president of the Bill Haley Fan Club lived near Candy, a pretty girl with pigtails
whom I liked, and he expelled me from the club, deeming my attention too focused on her, and
not enough on Bill Haley.

The State Theater was located on Hope Street, within easy walking distance from my
house. It had been built in 1927, originally for vaudeville , but a few years later, began to show
moving pictures. By the time I frequented the theater, it had become dirty, run-down, and, as
many adults claimed, a hangout for one of the main bugaboos of the '50s- juvenile delinquents.
Nevertheless, some ofmy happiest moments as a child were spent inside there, particularly at the
Saturday Kiddie Matinee, where, for 25 cents, I could see ten cartoons; a serial, such as the
Blackstone Rangers or Don Winslow of the Navy; a short, often the Three Stooges or Abbott and
Costello; and a double-feature. Sweets, such as Ju-Ju Beans and Juicy Fruits, cost 6 cents, and
admission to the State on days other than Saturdays was 50 cents.

Chaos often reigned at the State, where candy flew through the air-the screen had two
jagged rips from flying objects-black-jacketed hoods slashed seats and felt up their girlfriends
in the rear rows, and ushers feared getting beaten up if they tried to keep order. My father, along
with many other parents, petitioned the police to close the State down, and by the end of the
'50s, the owner had shuttered it. What role my father and his "vigilante" friends played, I'm not
sure, but at the time, I bitterly resented my father, and blamed him and his ilk for destroying my
dream palace, where I had seen such cinematic gems as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,
Bluebeard the Pirate, The Wizard ofOz, Beastfrom 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Fly, The
Son ofKong, The Robe, The Lost Continent, A Walk in the Sun, and Picnic.

My father was a stickler for discipline, and I considered him one of the strictest fathers in
The Colony. He worked in Manhattan and took the commuter train every day. While most of my
friends ate supper at 5 and were generally free to play by 5:30, my father didn't get home until
about 6:30, and I couldn't join my friends until 7. Compounding my plight was the fact that he
set an 8 0'clock curfew for me, which was signaled by a siren from the local firehouse. Needless
to say, I often came home late.

Another source of tension between us was my shoes. I was born with fallen arches and
wore special corrective Oxfords. They were expensive and, to my mind, hideous. Because I
loved to hang around swamps and fishing holes, I often returned to the house with my Oxfords
soaked and covered with mud. Curfew violations and wet shoes usually resulted in my being
restricted to our property. I remember one such restriction taking place on the weekend that War
of the Worlds was featuring at the State Theater. No amount of pleading could change my
father's mind, and I sulked all weekend in my room.

My father had a ferocious temper, and had no compunctions about using corporal
punishment. I remember him slapping me in the face at the dinner table and whipping me with
the buckle end of his belt until my mother physically threw herself in front of him. As time went
on, I grew more and more angry at him, and also more defiant. This created a dynamic in which I
strove to define myself in opposition to my father. I rejected his useful advice and ignored his
admirable qualities, and directed my anger toward him inward, which led to self-destructive

Today, I realize that my father's anger had nothing to do with me. He was an ambitious
businessman who worked for I. B. Kleinert's, a Jewish family-owned textile firm, for 25 years,
and was stuck at his position as assistant director of purchasing. He seethed with frustration: his
boss was a crook, and in the end, was indicted on income tax fraud and fired from the company.
My father eventually became director of purchasing, but by then I had been out of his house a
long time.

Along with my fear of authority figures, such as my father, teachers, priests , and nuns, as
well as bullies and older boys, I was terrified by the drumbeat of speculation about atomic
warfare. In the early grades, I had to participate in air-raid drills, crouching under my desk, my
hands covering my face, my face buried in my arms. I was sure that these drills were futile, and
that once the missiles started raining down, we were all doomed. I recall being gripped by terror
and waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming of mushroom clouds and the melting of my flesh
from radioactive fallout.

One of the most dramatic moments of my childhood took place in August of 1955, as a
result of back-to-back hurricanes, Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. The area near our
house was prone to flooding, and to protect our house, my father built a cinderblock wall around
the front of our property. Within a week, the two hurricanes had dumped 26 inches of water on
Southern Connecticut, resulting in massive flooding and widespread devastation. I remember
holding my mother's hand in waist-high water, and seeing my father heap sandbags on our
cinderblock wall as we abandoned our house for a neighbor's who lived on a hill.

As a grade student, I was filled with energy and mischief. I played the part of the class
clown, my goal being to get the cute girls to pay attention to me. I remember my third-grade
teacher, Miss Harrison, tying me to my chair with a jump rope because I wouldn't stay in my
seat, and my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Wilson, digging her fingernails into my forearms when, on
a school bus, while she was pointing out a business that belonged to the parents of one of my
classmates, I shouted, "Stone it!"

When I entered Dolan Junior High School, I became more sensitive and more selfconscious,
and developed a painful shyness around girls. I had friends but also relished being in
the woods alone, catching frogs, turtles, and snakes, and going fishing. I built wooden cages for
my pets, and I recall my mother yelling at me when she found a frog in my pants pocket or saw a
snake wiggling across the floor ofmy room.

I found solace in the woods, where I would enter an imaginary realm I called "The
Empire." Using a dead sapling as a microphone , I addressed associates named Sam, the Imperial
historian; and Al and Rocky, who were charged with overseeing the physical and social sectors
of my life. Later, this introspective and imaginative bent would serve to nourish my poetry and
short stories.

My father believed in work the way some people believe in therapy, prayer, or miracle
waters. From the time we lived in Springdale, he assigned me chores: weeding the garden,
cutting the grass, and handing him rocks that he used to build stone walls. He would often say,
"You make a living with either your brain or your back," and then lecture me on the importance
of a college education. He had created a college fund for me when I was born, which I couldn't
touch. When I made some money or was given a monetary gift, he deposited it in the fund. He
was always on the lookout for jobs for me; first, washing cars, raking leaves, and shoveling
snow, and later, working as a paperboy, and construction yard helper, and clerk at Graves Paint
and Hardware Store.

From an early age, I had a fascination with explosives..First I used match heads as fuel,
but later I learned how to make black powder. When my father got wind ofthis, he forbade me to
fool around with anything combustible . I not only defied him but moved my experiments to a
higher level, making more powerful bombs using larger containers. Once, I blew up part of a
neighbor's stone wall with a pipe bomb. Concerned that I might hurt myself, a neighbor told my
father, who flew into a rage, his anger further feeding my compulsion.

When I was 14, I was involved in an incident that should have made me realize I was out
of control and needed to -in the words of my father-" take inventory of myself." At the time, I
was a paperboy, and I used to cut across several acres of wheat fields that bordered Columbus
Place, a street inhabited by mostly Italian construction workers. One windy fall day, just to
amuse myself, I started throwing lit matches on the ground. A clump of wheat burst into flames
and, suddenly, a gust of wind spread the flames, and the whole field, as well as the newspapers I
was carrying, caught on fire. Terrified, I ran to the first house beyond the fields.
The homeowner noticed the rising cloud of smoke and called the fire department. Later,
after I saw the fire trucks and the wall of fire threatening the new houses that the Italians had
built, I vowed to stop fooling around with fire in any form. A police officer arrived at the scene.
He was very solicitous and drove me into Stamford so I could pick up more newspapers and
finish up my route. In the end, no houses were damaged, nobody was hurt, and, thankfully, my
parents never found out what happened.

Just as I've sometimes wondered whether I would have been better off if I had never
moved from the Bronx, I've also wondered if, in the long run, I might have been better off if the
cop had told my parents and the school authorities about my fire-starting. Clearly, I was acting
recklessly and was in trouble. Maybe it would have led to my being able to talk to somebody
about my fears and insecurities. Then again, my father would have blown a fuse, and few, if any,
counseling services existed at that time. Unlike today, when I was growing up, seeing a mental
health professional came with a big stigma. People who saw shrinks in a small town weren't
viewed as seeking to "enhance their life prospects," but were treated as freaks and psychos.

My vow to stop fooling around with fire didn't last long. A short while later, I gave some
black powder to two older friends, Sonny and Kenny, for a five-foot-tall aluminum rocket they
had built for a science project. They were supposed to wait until I returned from my paper route
before trying to launch the rocket. I was a few blocks away when I heard a tremendous
explosion. Kenny came staggering down the street, one arm around Sonny, a towel covering his
bloody hand. He ended up losing two fingers. The image of his mutilated hand kept me from
building bombs ever again.

As a young boy, I was on the short and skinny side, and when I was eight, I tried out for
the Springdale Little League. The legendary Tom "Bo" Hickey was pitching that day, and he hit
me in the ribs with a wild pitch. I was terrified, and ended up striking out three times and not
making the league. I didn't excel at any of the big three: baseball, basketball, or football, and,
looking back, I had a fear of physical contact.

During my last year at junior high school, I joined the track team and performed well. It
was at this time that I took up weightlifting, wanting to add some muscle to what I considered a
scrawny body. I responded well to weight training, and began a five-day-a-week routine:
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were devoted to upper body work, and Tuesdays and
Thursdays reserved for the lower body.

I spent the summer of 1959 hanging out with two guys and three girls under some elm
trees shading an old stone wall at the end of Prudence Drive, a block away from where I lived.
Our hangout bordered a few acres of former farmland known as Guider's Field. One of the guys
owned a new transistor radio, and we would spend hours listening to rock 'n' roll and joking
around. I had a crush on one of the girls. Connie was an olive-skinned Italian girl, with dark eyes
and dark hair. Her mother often took us to the beach, where my eyes would feast on Connie's
prematurely ripening body.

My parents didn't like Connie's family. Her father was a construction worker who never
seemed to go to work but could afford a new Cadillac every year and never-ending additions to
his house, including a large swimming pool. Mom called him a cajon '- a crude slob-and it was
rumored that he was a wife-beater and mafioso. My parents let me know that they didn't approve
of my chasing after Connie. One day, my father-as if he could read my mind-said to me, "I
better never hear of you taking Connie into the woods."

But, like so many other things, I took a certain joy in defying him.

At the end of the summer, Connie and I evaded our parents' vigilant eyes and snuck into
Guider's Field, where we cuddled and kissed. Connie said she wanted me to be her boyfriend,
but that first I had to go with her to the upcoming school dance. I couldn't do it. I had never
danced before, and became so uptight that, despite being crazy about her, I avoided her, and we
stopped speaking to each other. For the next two years, I listened to songs of unrequited love
from "the golden summer of '59," like "There Goes My Baby," by the Drifters, and pined about
how I had lost the dusky, shapely Connie.

In 1960, I began attending an afternoon double session at Stamford High School. The
severe overcrowding that made double sessions necessary would end the following year, when a
new high school opened to serve North Stamford. From the beginning I took to Stamford High,
where the class and racial mix were different from my elementary and junior high schools. For
the first time, I went to school with African Americans, and I experienced the atmosphere and
culture as more urban and working class. Looking back, I believe Stamford High reminded me of
the warm rough-and-tumble quality of the Bronx, which I still visited on a regular basis.
My Italian class was filled with friendly girls and guys, and my teacher, Charles
Franchini, served as a role model for me. A former cadet at Virginia Military Institute, he
encouraged me to apply to Pennsylvania Military College.

I made new friends, many of whom were Italian and came from the West Side,
Stamford's historic Italian neighborhood. I admired their camaraderie and toughness. Once, at
Cove Island Beach in Stamford, some of these West Side Italians challenged a bunch of us from
Springdale to playa game of football. What a mistake! They massacred us. My jaw and arms
ached for a week. And even more painful was the realization that our opponents looked down on
us as coming from the softer, more hoity-toity, section of town.

I maintained my weightlifting regimen, and after a year and a half of rigorous training, I
packed on 25 pounds ofmuscle and could military-press over 200 pounds. I was probably, pound
for pound, the strongest kid in my high school. I planned on competing in the 1962 Connecticut
Teenage Weightlifting Competition. Under my photograph in my high school yearbook, it reads,
"Gil, dynamic weightlifter. . . ."

In the '50s and early '60s, a powerful Civil Rights Movement was gathering strength,
fighting against the racial oppression of African Americans, close to a hundred years after they
had officially been emancipated from slavery. At the time, Springdale was virtually an all-white
community and, to my recollection, was very prejudiced against people of color. Growing up, the
ultimate put-down was always your mother was born on Pacific Street, a black section of
Stamford that had been torn down during the "urban removal" that accompanied Stamford's
transformation into a corporate headquarters.

I also recall hearing anti-Semitic remarks behind the backs of the few Jews who resided
in The Colony. Italians weren't spared either. Once, while Sonny's mother was driving us to the
beach, Sonny turned around and asked me, "What is the sound of an Italian machine gun?"
When I gave him a blank look, he said, "Guinea, guinea, wop, wop, wop," as his mother hollered
for him to be quiet.

For the most part, the only African Americans I saw were a few garbagemen and a
paperboy who lasted a week, whom neighbors called Sambo. When Jackie Robinson, the first
African American to play Major League baseball, bought a house in North Stamford, his son,
Jackie, Jr., and daughter, Sharon, attended the public schools there. When my sister invited
Sharon to her birthday party, some of our neighbors complained to my mother about letting
blacks come into the neighborhood.

While my father voted Republican, and favored Eisenhower and Nixon, my mother was a
New Deal Democrat who strongly supported the Civil Rights Movement. I recall watching with
her TV news images of African Americans being attacked by Southern mobs opposed to
desegregation. My mother's compassion for the poor and oppressed, and her willingness to
defend unpopular positions, deeply impressed me. She was the primary influence that led to my
participation in the protest movements of the 1960s, as well as my choice of a career in
psychiatry and social work. I remember, as a teenager , arguing with friends about the Civil
Rights Movement. Some of them argued that blacks were innately inferior; others, that their
militant tactics were counterproductive. I can't recall any of my peers being supportive of my
views, which, at the time, paralleled those of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eventually, my father demonstrated that my mother's advocacy of racial equality even
had an impact on him, when he stopped talking to one of the conductors on his commuter train
who habitually referred to African Americans as niggers.

After my blissful year at Stamford High, I learned that I wouldn't be returning in the fall;
that I had been assigned instead to the new Rippowam High School, which was known as "the
Country Club School." I was miserable . Then, halfway through my junior year, I injured my
lower back lifting a 94-pound cement bag into a customer's trunk at Graves Paint and Hardware
Store. I was in the midst of training for the State Championships, and had already unofficially
surpassed the teenage records in my weight division for the three Olympic lifts: the military
press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk. A coach at Rippowam had pledged to supervise those of
us interested in competitive weightlifting, but he never followed through on his promises.
Foolishly, I continued to train, aggravating my injury to the point where I could never lift heavy
weights again.

During my junior year at Rippowam, I applied to college. That I would go to college was
a given, something beyond dispute. Both my parents regretted not going beyond high school, and
from an early age, they had hammered it into my head that without a college diploma I would
never be able to compete in the modem job market. In addition, at least some of my teachers
thought I had the intellectual potential, or, in the cruel language of the 1950s, was college

My uncle Dan, a professor of European History at Fairfield University, and the family
intellectual, guided my application process. I ended up applying to Manhattan College, NYU,
and Pennsylvania Military College. I chose PMC because it was one of the few colleges that had
a weightlifting team, and because I entertained the fantasy that a military environment would
somehow force me to study and become a good student.

Looking back, I can see it was ridiculous for me to have applied to Manhattan College
and NYU, since my grades were so poor. And by the time I received my rejection notices from
them, and my acceptance from PMC, college was the last thing on my mind. But there was a
bigger issue playing out besides whether I was qualified to go to college. Young people in
Stamford tended to look at their peers as belonging to one of two large social constellations: the
"hoods," which was code for the working class, and the "rah-rahs," which referred to the middle
or upper classes.

I had always identified with the hoods, or the working-class kids, although I also had a
hidden intellectual life, completely separate from school, which manifested itself in voracious
reading. Also, a part of me, no doubt influenced by the upwardly mobile ambitions of much of
my family, couldn't imagine settling for ajob in a gas station, bowling alley, or factory.

I became depressed and estranged from the students at Rippowam, lacked confidence
academically, and was too shy to ask girls out on dates. With the loss of weightlifting, I lost any
positive sense of myself. At the same time, my interest in the hot rod scene was growing. In the
'50s and '60s in Stamford, car culture dominated. It took two main forms: customizing the
physical beauty of a car or hot rodding, which focused on enhancing speed performance. Just
like with weightlifting, where I opted for competitive weightlifting rather than body building, in
the context of the car craze, I chose hot rodding over customizing. The common denominator
was the quest for power.

The most exhilarating moments I spent in Stamford, aside from my bomb-making phase,
were watching the drag races that routinely took place on Shippan Avenue and High Ridge Road.
Hot rodders from throughout Connecticut and New York would challenge each other to race.
Although illegal, the races were well-organized, with hundreds of dollars in bets at times
exchanging hands, and guys with walkie-talkies blocking off side streets and looking out for

My father wouldn't allow me to own a car until I graduated from high school-another
sore point I added to my long litany of complaints against him. Without his knowledge, I bought
a 1955 Chevy 210, the lightest model made that year, with a cracked engine, and stored it in a
friend's garage. I also purchased the fabled 409 Super Sport engine from a man who was about
to get married and wanted an engine that consumed less gas. With the crucial help of several
friends-since I wasn't very mechanically inclined-I installed the Super Sport engine in the '55
Chevy, had the exterior covered in gray lacquer primer, and "The Avenger" painted over the
front wheel wells. "The Avenger" hit the road a week or two before I graduated, and since I'd
lost all interest in schoolwork, I just barely managed to get my diploma.

During the summer of 1963, I had a blast racing through the streets, from Stamford to
Danbury. The standard equipment on my Chevy wasn't able to handle my engine's 425
horsepower, and I ended up first blowing my transmission and then my tail pipe and muffler. But
what fun and glory. I felt like a modern gladiator. Younger kids would applaud when I'd stomp
the accelerator and my front end would rise like ajet ready to take off, my burning tires leaving a
cloud of tire smoke.

In July of 1963, I met a cute blonde in Danbury named Paulette, and we started to go
steady. By the end of the summer, I had achieved everything I longed for at the time: a pretty
girlfriend, a legendary hot rod, and a circle of friends and admirers; plus, I had a job that at least
provided me with pocket money.

Then it all slipped away. By the third week in August, I had to pack my bags and head off
to the decaying post-industrial city of Chester, Pennsylvania. I had no idea what I was doing or
what I was facing. I just knew I had been supremely happy, but now I was on my way to
becoming a cadet at Pennsylvania Military College.

On the other hand, what were my options? My friends were scattering in all directions,
some going into the armed forces; others, to out-of-town colleges. I didn't want to remain a
poorly paid clerk in a local hardware store. Intense novel-reading had opened my mind to the
outer world and all its myriad and marvelous possibilities. I wanted to break out of Springdale.
And I certainly didn't want to be a boring businessman like my old man. Most ominously, the
winds of war were blowing and, without a student deferment, I was subject to being drafted into
the army and ending up a combat casualty in Southeast Asia, as nearly 60,000 young men did.

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Fagiani, Gil, “Growing Up in Springdale,” Ferguson Digital Archives, accessed June 28, 2022,


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